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Dunderheaded Diplomacy: Australia’s Funding Offer to the Solomon Islands

What is it about Australian diplomacy that makes it so clumsy and dunderheaded? Is it the harsh delivery, the tactless expression, or the inability to do things with subtle reflection? On September 6, Australian diplomacy gave another display of such form with Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s remarks about the Solomon Islands elections.

Things have been testy for the government of Manasseh Sogavare, who has rolled out the red carpet to pestiferous officials of virtually all ranks from Beijing to Washington. Most, if not all of this interest, has been triggered by Sogavare’s signing of a security pact with the People’s Republic of China. This, the government in Honaria duly found out, is not approved by the Anglophone powers on either side of the Pacific.

On its announcement, then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a potential Chinese naval base a “red line”, while US National Security Council official Kurt Campbell promised that Washington would “respond accordingly”.

Being in what is termed the Australian “backyard” by those who so happen to be in Australia, Wong made an offer that would irk any sovereign state, including her own: We, old friends of empire, are happy to bankroll your election.

The offer was floated largely because of two factors. Sogavare is keen to hold elections after the Pacific Games, scheduled to be held in late 2023. The Constitutional Amendment Bill 2022 placed before parliament will enable him to postpone the election till 2024. The unconvincing argument made by the government is that forking out the cash for both the Games and the election in the same year would be prohibitively costly.

Instead of leaving this messy situation to Honiara to scrap it out with its detractors and opponents, Wong decided to open the wallet. The Australian taxpayer, never asked in such matters, would happily cover the cost of the elections were they to be held next year. “We have made an offer of assistance, and it’s a matter for the Solomon Islands as to whether they respond and how they wish to respond,” she explained to RN Breakfast.

When asked whether this seemed to be a soothing response to the grievances of opposition politicians in the Solomon Islands, Wong could only be derivative. “No, this is because Australia has historically supported democracy in the Solomon Islands.” Australia had “previously offered support and we are offering support again.”

After the bitter, condescending tenure of the Morrison government, which saw South Pacific states mocked for their climate change concerns, Canberra’s perceived paternalism is not welcome. The statement that thundered Canberra’s way was one of stern disapproval. “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.”

Using words that should appeal to Australia’s own politicians, the statement went on to claim that this was “an assault on our parliamentary democracy and is a direct foreign interference into our domestic affairs.”

Opposition MPs in Honiara have eagerly jumped at the promise of Wong’s statement. Using Australian assistance as a political means to weaken the government has played to a conventional stereotype: find the wealthy patron, and use that patron wisely. Australia’s offer, claimed MP Peter Kenilorea Jr of the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, 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 is also of the view 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.”

The likes of Kenilorea have a point in noting how Sogavare had happily received cash from Canberra regarding funding for the Pacific Games itself. “When Australia gave A$17m for the Pacific Games it was heartily welcomed with smiles. But when an offer is made to support timely elections, it is seen differently.” Perhaps it says much that MP Kenilorea sees no distinction between games that are sponsored, in part, by a foreign power, and the election process that returns parliamentary members.

Back in Australia, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham, did not disagree with the sentiment, but took issue with the execution. The Albanese government, he remarked on RN Breakfast, should have done things in confidence and on the sly. To have made it public was a “giant misstep”.

Nor was the electoral gambit enough for those voices who wish to see the South Pacific turned into an Anglo-Australian garrison ready to repel the Yellow Horde. The apoplectic demagogues on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News network rage that more should be done. The blustery Andrew Bolt told his handful of viewers that the Albanese government had shown “weakness” in not trouncing the independent will of island savages and their drift towards the bosom of totalitarianism. “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.”

The only country risking the status of a “Cuba of the Pacific”, in so far as political isolation is concerned, is Australia. “Australia’s strategic dilemma in the twenty-first century,” writes former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani “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.” In choosing to be a spear of Western interference, tipped by an ignorance of regional conditions and historical realities, Canberra’s estrangement and exile is all but guaranteed.

 

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6 comments

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  1. Douglas Pritchard

    I`m sure our image would be greatly enhanced if we were able to shake off our need to keep Washington happy.
    If our neighbours saw our actions as being in our own interests, both long and short term, then that makes sense.
    The confusion of our identity is always evident when we simply parrot US desires to create conflict and make more noise than is reasonable for a big land, with a small population trying to camouflage Pine Gap.

  2. Canguro

    When Australia gave A$17 for the Pacific Games it was heartily welcomed with smiles

    Seems a bit miserly… couldn’t they have made it an even $20? 🙂

  3. andy56

    Personally, I feel we treat our neighbours with contempt.
    If the Solomans wants to go all chinese, i would say go for it. Then i would allow all Soloman islanders to come work here . Tell the leaders to go jump and quietly feed the masses.
    I am tired of our messes and stupidity in dealing with issues. Trying to maintain our “sphere of influence” just intrenches us into following stupid american , russian and chinese practices. Soft diplomacy is our big weapon yet we choose stupidity as our guiding light.
    Another issue dear to my heart is the ridiculous visa costs incurred trying to live in Australia. When we are surrounded by literally poorer nations, we demand 1st world fees to participate. All for the here and now, no thought that maybe if people liked us they would also fight for us. There is a big distance between us and china, if we must paint a villian here, and also a very large population in between.
    As usual, defence decisions are made on assumptions. Remember when the domino theory held sway? Remember the atrocities we endured because of that ideology? As Russia are proving every day, they are good at bullying but not so good at looking people in the eye. They are going out of their way to prove they are a failing state. China would be looking at this and thinking, Taiwan isnt so easy to swallow after all. Why the fuck do we want nuclear subs patrolling the sth china sea? From what I see HIMARS are proving very capable.
    Going full renewables is also a defence issue. Being self reliant is surely what we all need. Not propping up other foreign and unreliable suppliers who would gladly take all our money if we were stupid enough to give it. If a war was to break out, we are fucked after 15 days if there are no more fuel supplies . Ukraine has shown us what supply lines mean in war..
    I just dont get it, decisions everywhere based on ideology and short term rather than any sound reasoning.

  4. A Commentator

    Does anyone else see a pattern?
    * The CCP gets offended, and it’s our fault
    * The Solomon Islands is offended and it’s our fault
    * Russia invaded Ukraine and it’s the fault of western democracies
    I don’t subscribe to the view that everything that is ailing in the world is the fault of the west

  5. andy56

    A Commentator, yes i see a pattern but not the same as yours. We react as if all our diplomacy is transactional, just like Trump. We have values and we should support those values and not run and hide when we express them. If Some body cries , we should say bad luck. But your underlying assumption is that we know what the fuck we do. We are just reactionaries with no backbone, lol.

  6. A Commentator

    As I’ve commented in the past, I think interpreting the negative reaction of autocratic regimes and small minded politicians, as our fault, is a contemporary version of the cultural cringe.
    The over reaction by the CCP to some clumsy political comments, was for their domestic consumption. And to encourage subservience from their trading suppliers.
    The reaction of the Solomon Islands is for domestic political consumption.
    The invasion of Ukraine was entirely due to Putin’s vanity and hubris.
    It’s embarrassing that some apparently intelligent people try to blame us, or similar democracies

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