Interview with Leigh Sales, ABC 7.30
LEIGH SALES: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, joined me from Melbourne. Minister, thanks for your time this evening. Do you have any plans in place yet to head to the Solomon Islands?
MARISE PAYNE: Leigh, as you know, the Minister for the Pacific and International Development, Minister Seselja, was there in the last week, and of course, I've been in contact with my counterpart, the Foreign Minister, Jeremiah Manele. The Prime Minister's been in contact with Prime Minister Sogavare. There's been extensive engagement across the government, including also ahead of the Office of the Pacific, who has visited Honiara in January and February and again last month. We understand, though, that this is a very serious decision that the Solomon Islands has made. We are, as we said today, deeply disappointed that they have chosen to go down this path, but ultimately, it is a sovereign decision for the Solomon Islands.
SALES: As you would know, in diplomacy, there's no trade off for a face to face meeting and those face to face relationships. Your predecessor, Julie Bishop, says she would have jumped on the first plane.
PAYNE: Well, indeed, and the Prime Minister has, I've heard those comments, and the Prime Minister has remarked on that today. We have carefully calibrated our approach on these issues. In fact, across the Pacific, it's not just about engaging with the Solomon Islands. There are many of our counterparts with whom we have been discussing these issues. And it is Australia, frankly, that has been at the forefront of these discussions about the geostrategic realities that we face in the Pacific and that we have worked on through our Pacific step up over a number of years now.
SALES: Gee, if Australia has been at the forefront of it, you must not have done a very good job if this is the result?
PAYNE: Well, I don't agree with that characterisation, Leigh. In fact, I don't agree at all. What we have engaged in across the Pacific is work with all of our partners through the Pacific Island Forum, principally, but also in our bilateral relations. Australia is the only country in the world with a diplomatic post in every country in the Pacific Island Forum membership. We have provided in the new financial year coming in this budget, about $1.85 billion in development assistance, and the Solomon Islands itself, from Australia's perspective, we are their largest development partner. They are our second largest development program in the Pacific, the first being Papua New Guinea. These are key relationships. But I do think that it is important to note, respectfully, that countries will always make their own sovereign decisions. We have been respectfully, very clear about our concerns of the challenges that this agreement poses. We've been very clear about our concerns on the lack of transparency that's attached to this agreement, unlike the bilateral security treaty between Australia and the Solomon Islands, which is openly published on the Australian treaty's website there for all to see. This is not equally open and transparent. We think that that's important. We think that the countries of the Pacific through the Biketawa Declaration, the Boe Declaration have a role to play in such important security decisions and that these are matters that ought to be discussed amongst partners right across the region and I expect will be taken up through the Pacific Island Forum.
SALES: For China to seize an opening like this though, and to persuade the Solomon Islands that, yes, we can help you out in terms of various security arrangements and partnerships and resources, doesn't it show that Australia and also the US have taken their eye off the ball because if you were close enough to the Solomons, there wouldn't have been that opening?
PAYNE: Well, I think, in fact, what has been demonstrated most recently and as recently as the end of last year when there was unrest again in Honiara, unfortunately, the first country that the Solomon Islands turned to for support in that was Australia. And with New Zealand, with Papua New Guinea and with Fiji, we provided the Solomon Islands Assistance Force, a number of members of whom are still present in the Solomon Islands amongst both the police component and the ADF component. That is because, as Prime Minister Sogavare has also reinforced recently, we are the Solomon Islands' first security partner of choice. He has also committed that this agreement will not lead to a military base in this region and that is not just a Chinese military base in this region. That is not just a commitment to Australia. That is a commitment to the entire Pacific. As I said, invoked through the provisions of the Biketawa Declaration and following that, the Boe declaration on security in the region, we have a very broad Pacific maritime security program, a $2 billion funded program that covers the entire Pacific in terms of our partnerships there. So there are multiple levels at which Australia is engaged, continues to be engaged and delivers for the Solomon Islands.
SALES: Senator Payne, thank you very much.
PAYNE: Thank you, Leigh.