Monday, 4 January 2010 11:22 PM

Interventions and the Moti Affair

It is very obvious that the Australian ruling class wants the littoral states to develop in the accepted World-Bank-sponsored manner. It is equally obvious that the ruling elites of the littoral states want a similar situation, with the important qualification that the resulting structure must accommodate their corruption and/or that their dependence at least looks independent.

Sogavare's appointment of lawyer and alleged paedophile Julian Moti as the Solomons' Attorney-General, and the assistance given to his escape from PNG by its Prime Minister, was a good example of both aspects. Being a fugitive, Moti would be only too willing to overlook anything that his patrons would want overlooked, while it would appear that Sogavare and Somare were very happy to give the Australian government a poke in the eye.

There was undoubtedly a political aspect to the Australian Government's approach to the Moti affair. There is inevitably a political aspect to relations with, within and between Australia and our littoral states.

That political aspect should not automatically be criticised. Some aspects - such as pressure to adopt market-based mechanisms that cause harm - should clearly be criticised and opposed. Others, such as ensuring that laws are fair and are applied, deserve support.

To pressure a government such as that of East Timor or the Solomons towards a particular end may therefore be acceptable, depending on the "end". In general, the courts assess such things by the standard of what they refer to as "an officious bystander" or "a reasonable person", a mythical being who turns out to be somewhat more complicated once one considers a particular issue.

It would seem legitimate, for instance, to apply pressure on the Fijian government to end that dictatorship. It would not seem legitimate to pressure Fiji to abolish all tariffs, or to pressure Fiji to allow a particular fishing company exclusive access to the Fijian economic zone.

As was said in The Australian, the 4½-year-old Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands - RAMSI - has much to be proud of; ethnic violence has been contained and there have been improvements in many areas of public administration. Having a quasi-illegal immigrant and alleged criminal as Attorney-General sits badly with that situation, nor would a reasonable Solomon Islander be likely to see otherwise.

To that extent a Federal Police submission to a Senate committee inquiry into "Australia's involvement in peacekeeping operations" was correct in asserting "Sovereignty, respect and understanding of host nation culture and laws will assist in the acceptance of police contributions. Sovereignty will however be used in a variety of circumstances to obstruct change which may reduce the benefits of police interventions or capacity building missions as they threaten the status quo enjoyed by local elites,".

Referring to AusAID, the same submission noted that "By helping to reduce poverty and promote development, the aid program is an integral part of Australia's foreign policy and security agenda."

Sogavare has called for a RAMSI "exit strategy", consistently criticised it, threatened to expel Australian personnel from the mission, to strip the troops of their immunity from prosecution, accused the mission of representing too much of Canberra's interests, and of failing to focus on its mandate to restore law and order in the South Pacific nation.

Others have accused Sogavare and his cronies of poor governance, abuse of power, corruption, seeking excuses to frustrate efforts to rebuild the discredited local police force, and gross failure to act against abuses such as logging.

While an internal matter for the Solomon Islands, the democratic removal of Sogavare does hold promise that better approaches are prevailing. In East Timor, the Solomons, and Fiji, the local powerbrokers have become accustomed to a moderate Australian reaction, and, being confident of non-interference unless they choose to start clashes with the Australian presence, feel relatively unrestrained in their internal power struggles. Bainimarama's ostentatious travels within the region when he was openly plotting a coup showed his disdain of Australia and New Zealand.

That said, of course, the market-based approach is fundamentally bad, as will become very clear in seven or eight years, when the Solomons is logged out and there is little left to sell except a wasteland. As a leftist, I regret the failure of the left to offer feasible alternatives (a Third Way, if you like) to Pacific Islanders' problems (including of course the withdrawal of all foreign armed personnel). Compiling and promoting feasible alternatives to current problems is, unfortunately, an area in which the Left internationally has long been and still is grossly derelict in its obligations.

There is a parallel with East Timor. While the pre-degeneration DSP was keen on painting the foreign armed presence in East Timor in vividly imperialist hues, it carefully avoided recognising the corruption and dishonesty of both the Fretilin grouping and of previously respectable figures such as Ramos-Horta and Gusmao.

East Timor's security forces and civil service are politicised, a situation that could trigger a return to instability. Poor government decision-making and lax fiscal management (worsened rather than improved by highly paid expatriate advisers) are likely to lead to increasing wastage and corruption. Big increases in rice import subsidies caused a big fall in agricultural production. Large and increasing royalties from oil and gas developments have failed to reduce East Timorese poverty.

Developing geniuinely sustainable development structures for the littoral states deserves far more attention - note though, that any effective structure is more likely to look like something from Comecon than from the Harvard School of Economics.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Roger Raven and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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