Does the Australian government do introspection when it comes to assessing its foreign policy choices?
So thick are the drapes on the bureaucratic curtain that it is hard to know. But if ever there was an occasion for self-reflection as to the appropriateness of an approach, it was the combustive events last week in Honiara, capital of Solomon Islands. Australia has been wilfully blind to a busted political system that delivers little or nothing for the average Solomon Islander. It should change tack, and focus more on local strengths.
Violence in Honiara began last Wednesday, when hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the national parliament to demand Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare step down. Events escalated quickly. Over the space of a few days, a police station was torched and the Prime Minister's official residence left in cinders. The warehouse of Solomon Islands Tobacco, the country's biggest taxpayer, went up in pungent smoke. Much of the city's Chinatown has been burnt and looted, just as it was back in previous riots in 2006. Three people are dead. By the end of the week, Australia had dispatched the military and a contingent of Australian Federal Police, kitted out with so much protective clobber and firepower that they resembled Robocop. So much for the "mission accomplished" vibe that the Australian foreign policy PR machine ballyhooed as the 14-year Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) ended in 2017.
The violence of 2021 has complex origins. It includes political manoeuvrings and competition within the elite over spoils, the semi-permanent ownership of MPs by patronage networks that emanate from the logging industry, simmering differences between leaders from different islands, a soupcon of geopolitics, and a large dollop of boredom and despair on the part of young people in Honiara at their bleak economic situation. This is a state that delivers little for its people. Even before COVID and its economic contractions, the World Bank estimated there were 10,000 new entrants into the labour market each year, competing for 400 new jobs. The pandemic has made a dire economic situation worse still. Ninety-seven percent of Solomon Islanders think corruption in government is a major problem, as per Transparency International research.
All of this should be well known. Former colleagues from the Australian National University have been writing with nuance about these complexities for years, of the limitations of the state and the mixed motivations of many leaders within it. One would assume Australian diplomats have been bashing out cables describing such back to Canberra.
But yet, to acknowledge all this is to acknowledge an inconvenient truth. Jittery about China and keen to keep Solomon Islands' elite on side, the Australian aid program has focused on not interfering with their business model while ploughing money into state institutions to give them the semblance of functionality. This means conveyor belts of technical advice and training packages, but there's little evidence this has made much difference in terms of governmental effectiveness. There has been a public reluctance to admit this approach doesn't work. The Australian High Commission's social media channels were, until last week, a looking-glass world of cheery launches and opening ceremonies, where everything was presented as tickety-boo.
There has been no shortage of advice as to how Australia can do all of this better - it's just that no one heeds it. A 2019 review of Australia's justice and governance programs - which took 18 months to be publicly released - concluded that the federal government in Canberra and the diplomatic post in Honiara had ignored findings from all previous reviews. The Australian Federal Police has been training and equipping Solomon Islands police since 2003 - including building their capability to tackle public order challenges, no less - but there has never been a publicly released appraisal weighing up how that's been going.
What to do? One solution is for Australia to think beyond the state and its familiar institutions, which is to say focus on the milieu that most Solomon Islanders actually live in and depend on for their daily needs. In a 2018 survey - funded, like so much else, by the Australian aid program - the church and non-government organisations were trusted the most, while the government and police were trusted least. There is much work to do to better connect the administration in Honiara with the rural communities that live in the islands beyond the capital.
At a fundamental level, this means Australia accepting that development is not achieved in conference halls or training rooms in the capital city, but is instead localised, provisional, messy, organic and built from the bottom up. It involves recognising that the vast majority of MPs in power might have limited interest in changing the status quo. It requires prioritising the local, accepting differences and being less fretful about baroque national politics and whether a minister is going to show up at the launch of yet another adviser-written strategy, policy or plan.
This is not easy. It will be stop-start in nature, and require innovative thinking and courage by Australian policymakers and less fixation with four-year planning cycles. There's two new Australian-funded "justice" and "governance" programs set to commence in Solomon Islands next year. The AFP's policing support will continue also. The treads on the tyres of this current approach are bare. It's time to change them.
- Gordon Peake is an affiliate at Georgetown University's Centre for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Studies.