Excerpt from my memoirs.
My arrival on the scene in the Solomon Islands also occurred at a time when several members of the Bougainville Interim Government, including Joseph Kabui, were in transit at Honiara after attending two weeks of peace talks at Burnham Military Camp in New Zealand and was now heading back to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.
It was there that the Burnham Truce Declaration had been signed by Kabui in his capacity as Deputy Chairman of the Bougainville Interim Government, by Gerard Sinato, the premier of the Bougainville Transitional Government and by representatives of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
All parties at the talks, in signing the declaration, recognized the desirability of taking immediate measures –
To cease armed conflict
For peace and reconciliation, and
For the return of normalcy and restoration of services on the troubled island of Bougainville after years of armed conflict.
Officials from the Solomon Islands had played a significant role in helping to broker the peace talks which had occurred in New Zealand.
Basically, the Burnham Truce Declaration, in addition to the need for a cease-fire on the island of Bougainville, called for the withdrawal of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and acceptance of a UN peacekeeping force on the island.
Having been briefed on the Bougainville conflict that had been waging on the Solomon’s border, one was glad to see that the talks were successful – at least the first step towards implementing real peace in the area.
Members of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force assisted during the transit arrangements from Henderson Airport to the Mbokona wharf where the delegates at the talks boarded the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Canterbury, moored in readiness to take them back to Bougainville.
Positive reports came in about the excellent, efficient manner in which they had carried out their responsibilities during the transit which was good to hear indeed.
Now a diplomatic blunder, due carelessness appeared, giving rise to a political problem. One does not, as one government to another, publicly question the efficiency and honesty, in direct non diplomatic language, of the leaders of a government however true it may be: there are limits to transparency.
What had happened was that an unattended copy of a highly classified document, which had been compiled by Australian Foreign Affairs staff, to aid it was said, Alexander Downer and the Treasurer, Peter Costello, was picked up by a Reuter’s journalist who leaked the contents. This act of carelessness was reported to have occurred at a meeting in Cairns being held by Pacific economic ministers.
This report had said New Zealand’s approach to its Pacific island neighbours made it more difficult for Australia to take a hard line economic attitude with Pacific island countries. But more damming still, were revelations about other Pacific countries, particularly Nauru and the Solomon Islands, with criticism in the 93-page report questioning the honesty and efficiency of some of the South Pacific islands leaders.
The leaked report led to something of a diplomatic storm and the then Australian Opposition leader, Gareth Evans, described the report as “contemptuous and patronizing” of Australia’s neighbours.
James Batley, the newly arrived Australian High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, found himself on the back foot very quickly and he wrote to explain in the local press that the briefing material had been prepared by officials for ministers as background for meetings and discussions, but the material was not, itself, government policy nor an expression of the Australian Government’s views.
However, he had difficulty replacing the published ‘real’ words with ‘diplomatic’ code words.
Reaction from the Solomon’s government was initially muted following the publication of Batley’s letter, but then caretaker Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni reacted by branding the leaked Australian report as unfair and described it as a diversion from Canberra’s persistent weakness and failure in its foreign policies towards island states.
A problem here was that the leaked report claimed that Mamaloni would be an obstacle to the Solomon’s government for as long as he was in power. Furthermore, it had been alleged that even in opposition he would pose a threat.
The same report was also said to have claimed that Mamaloni had bought support with help from Malaysian logging interests to topple the short-lived Hilly government in 1994.
Still more damaging revelations were to surface later when an article written by Reuter’s Michael Perry said, “The report has reinforced the belief that Australia is the ‘Big Brother’ of the region with an arrogant, condescending and patronizing attitude towards its smaller island neighbours.”
Despite being new on the scene, I considered Perry’s comments to be overly dramatic in his quest for readers and in total, less than fair, considering Australia was then contributing A$124.7 million annually to aid Pacific states and had constantly, to my knowledge, given stern warnings about their economic management.
After all, when contributing funds one does like it to be spent where you intended it to be spent.
This series of negative publicity, on top of my also negative, pre appointment visit to the Australian Federal Police, made it difficult to generate support from Solomon Island government officials who were now wary of any approaches that one wanted to make to Canberra.
To be continued…
Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 8: Regional Assistance and Adverse Politics.
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