Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on September 6 that Australia had offered to fund the Solomon Islands elections.
“We have made an offer of assistance, and it’s a matter for Solomon Islands as to whether they respond and how they wish to respond,” she told ABC Radio National Breakfast.
When asked whether this was aimed at the grievances of opposition politicians in the Solomon Islands, Wong could only be derivative: “No, this is because Australia has historically supported democracy in Solomon Islands.”
Australia had “previously offered support and we are offering support again”.
Things have been testy for Manasseh Sogavare’s government, which has rolled out the red carpet to officials of virtually all ranks from Beijing to Washington.
Most, if not all, the interest has been triggered by Sogavare’s signing of a security pact with China.
Tthe Anglophone powers on either side of the Pacific told Honiara this is not welcome.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a potential Chinese naval base a “red line” in April, while United States National Security Council official Kurt Campbell promised Washington would “respond accordingly”.
Being in what is termed Australia’s “backyard”, Wong made an offer that would irk any sovereign state, including her own.
The offer was floated largely because Sogavare is keen to hold elections after the Pacific Games in late 2023.
The passing of the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2022 enables him to postpone the election until 2024. The argument was that forking out the cash for the Games and the election in the same year would be prohibitively costly.
Instead of leaving Honiara to scrap it out with its detractors and opponents, Wong decided to open the wallet. The Australian taxpayer, who was never asked, would happily cover the cost of the elections were they to be held next year, she said.
After Morrison’s condescending tenure, in which South Pacific states were mocked for their climate change concerns, Canberra’s paternalism is not welcome.
“The timing of the public media announcement by the Australian government is in effect a strategy to influence how Members of Parliament will vote on this Bill during the second reading on Thursday 8th September 2022,” a Sogavare government statement said.
It claimed that the offer was “an assault on our parliamentary democracy and is a direct foreign interference into our domestic affairs”.
Opposition Solomon Islands MPs jumped at Wong’s offer. Using Australia to weaken the government plays to a conventional stereotype — find the wealthy patron and use that patron wisely.
MP Peter Kenilorea jnr, of the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, claimed Australia’s offer was “generous” rather than one of interference and the fuming on Sogavare’s part was “unfortunate and extremely unhelpful. It has exposed Sogavare and his government’s … selfish agenda to hold on to power.”
Opposition leader Matthew Wale said that Sogavare is desperate to entrench himself, using the amendment measure as a distraction. “If we respect the people’s mandate and parliamentary democracy and processes, MPs should reject the Bill to postpone elections. With Australian funding, there is now no need for the bill.”
Kenilorea said Sogavare happily received cash from Canberra to fund the Pacific Games, “but when an offer is made to support timely elections, it is seen differently”. Kenilorea doesn’t see any distinction between games sponsored, in part, by a foreign power and a national election.
Australia’s shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham told RN Breakfast that the federal government should have done things in confidence. To make it public was a “giant misstep”, he said.
Nor was the electoral gambit enough for those voices who wish to see the South Pacific turned into an Anglo-Australian garrison.
The demagogues on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News network raged that more should be done. Andrew Bolt told his viewers that the government had shown “weakness” in not trouncing the Solomon Islands government’s decision.
“It still refuses to say a word of criticism as the Solomon Islands, this island nation right on our border, as its leader pushes from democracy towards something looking increasingly like the Cuba of the Pacific.”
Former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani wrote: “Australia’s strategic dilemma in the twenty-first century is simple: it can choose to be a bridge between East and the West in the Asian Century — or the tip of the spear projecting Western power into Asia.”
Choosing the latter, tipped by an ignorance of regional conditions and historical realities, Canberra’s estrangement is all but guaranteed.
[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]