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Transparency key to deterring accusations of Australian interference in the Pacific

Posted By on September 8, 2022 @ 11:30

Australia isn’t trying to interfere in Solomon Islands’ democracy, as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has claimed [1]. However, poor timing has provided an opening for Honiara to launch fiery political attacks at Canberra and divert the people of Solomon Islands from the actual issue of amending the constitution to postpone the election.

By making public its readiness to provide election funding assistance only after the Sogavare government had introduced a bill [2] (which is currently being debated) to postpone the Solomons’ general election, Australia has risked creating the appearance that its offer was designed to thwart Sogavare rather than being a normal gesture of assistance to a Pacific neighbour.

It has become clear that quiet diplomacy is not an effective strategy in relation to Sogavare. A better approach is for Australia to be fully transparent in its engagement with Honiara to head off any accusations of interference and ensure its actions can’t be used for political advantage by others.

Australia’s offer to assist Solomon Islands with its next national election, currently scheduled for 2023, is routine for the relationship between these two countries—and between Australia and many other countries in the Pacific. Australia supported Papua New Guinea’s election [3] just two months ago, without any great controversy. And Australia has provided some form of election support to Solomon Islands, either logistically, financially or often both, since the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands began 20 years ago. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has since clarified that this is a standing offer [4] independent of when the election is held.

The perception created by the timing of the announcement is what has caused a problem. Australia did actually send a letter to the Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade to officially offer assistance five days before the proposal was publicly revealed, first by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday morning, followed shortly afterwards by Wong’s confirmation to the ABC.

Indeed, Australia has likely been making clear for some time that it is ready to provide election support. (One reason Canberra held off on making a public statement might be that it expected to announce the assistance in conjunction with the Solomons government before the bill was introduced to parliament.)

However, the timing of the revelation, coinciding with Sogavare’s attempt to postpone the election until 2024, has enabled Sogavare to distract people from his plan. Let’s be clear: Sogavare is the one attempting to abuse his power, not the Australian government. He would, incidentally, have known perfectly well that Canberra was making the offer before it was publicly announced.

The result has been that Australia’s unremarkable, routine offer of support has been met with attacks from the Solomon Islands government, with Sogavare branding Wong’s announcement ‘an assault [5] on our parliamentary democracy’ and ‘direct interference by a foreign government into our domestic affairs’.

Given what we know about Sogavare, it would have been better if Australia had announced the offer as soon as it was communicated to the Solomon Islands government or even as soon as the decision to offer support was made. Instead, online debate in the Solomons has now shifted to some extent from whether it’s necessary to postpone the election so that the country can afford to host this year’s Pacific Games, to the appropriateness of the Australian offer and its timing.

By trying to deal with these issues initially in private, Canberra has created room for misleading claims and accusations that could, over time, tarnish Australia’s reputation in the region. Initial analysis of commentary on Solomon Islands social media pages shows greater negativity towards Australia related to this event than others analysed in the past 12 months. This includes the public response to the Chinese Communist Party’s false narrative [6] that Australia had instigated the November 2021 Honiara riots, and the party’s ongoing efforts to label Australia as ‘threatening’, ‘colonialist’ and a ‘bully [7]’ with illegitimate interests in the region (which will be detailed in a forthcoming ASPI report, Suppressing the truth and spreading liesHow the CCP influences Solomon Islands online information environment).

Sogavare has a knack for spinning a story in his favour; you don’t become a four-time prime minister without knowing how to do so. This has been another conjuring trick by Sogavare, but one that reminds us that Australia shouldn’t provide him with any further ammunition. Continuing to try to deal with Sogavare through behind-the scenes diplomacy will only yield the same result.

That’s why Australia should adopt greater transparency in its engagement with Solomon Islands. As well as making its offer public earlier, Australia could have responded to pleas made last month by key Solomon Islands opposition members [8] by acknowledging that an offer was on the table and reiterating its longstanding support for democratic elections in the Solomons. Such an approach would have made it clear much earlier that funding could not be used as an excuse for delaying the election.

It is folly to think we can avoid all public expressions of outrage from Sogavare. He would have likely been angered by the announcement regardless of when it was made. There’s little Australia can do about that. But the relationship is more than one person and transparency can take the sting out of false accusations designed to distract or sway public opinion. Sogavare should be explaining to his own people why an election can’t be held on time, not accusing Australia of foreign interference. Full and timely transparency by Australia would ensure all political actors in Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the region are held to account by the people who elect them.

This isn’t the first lesson Australia has had to learn about the pitfalls of managing the relationship with Solomon Islands. The Australian government knows that it must be persistent and consistent in its efforts to provide support and build deeper relationships across the region. If it incorporates greater transparency into those activities, it will go a long way towards countering claims that its support is ‘interfering’ or illegitimate.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/transparency-key-to-deterring-accusations-of-australian-interference-in-the-pacific/

URLs in this post:

[1] claimed: https://solomons.gov.sb/timing-of-australian-election-offer-inappropriate/

[2] bill: https://www.parliament.gov.sb/sites/default/files/2022-09/Constitution%20%28Amendment%29%20Bill%202022.pdf

[3] election: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/australia-to-send-adf-personnel-to-png-ahead-of-election/13905262

[4] standing offer: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-07/coalition-says-labor-mishandled-solomon-islands-election-offer/101416408

[5] assault: https://www.sibconline.com.sb/government-says-timing-of-australian-election-offer-inappropriate/

[6] false narrative: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202111/1240050.shtml

[7] bully: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202203/1257034.shtml

[8] opposition members: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-09/solomon-islands-government-seeks-to-delay-election/101315836

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