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The Collapse of Australia's Pacific Intervention

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The Collapse of Australia's Pacific Intervention
By Tim Anderson

The strong parliamentary vote of confidence in Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is a sign that the Howard Government's Pacific intervention strategy is facing collapse.

The Solomons vote came on after Sogavare's government expelled the Australian High Commissioner for political interference, faced down the Howard Government over the Moti affair, and seemed on the verge of winding up the Australian police-and-finance RAMSI project. The parliament backed Sogavare's defiance of Australia, with a vote of 28 to 17.

Just as the Australian police and army presence has reached its highest point in the region, political rejection of Howard's 'regional assistance' is hardening in the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. Pacific leaders are re-assessing the costs of Australian patronage.

At the root of this patronage, and behind the talk of 'good governance', is the fairly standard colonial demand for privileged access to natural resources, a crippling of public institution and human resource building through a doctrine of 'open markets', and 'strategic denial' of potential competitors.

Being a neo-colonial project, it requires compliant regimes. Yet the Solomons has turned against Howard, Papua New Guinea under Michael Somare has become increasingly assertive and, after a partisan intervention in Timor Leste's crisis, Australia faces the likely re-election in 2007 of an Alkatiri-led Fretilin Government.

In the face of the Australian claims, all three neighbouring countries have made some moves to extract better value from their natural resources (oil, gas, mining, forests), to develop some policies areas that Australia has failed to support (rice production, public health programs), and to diversify their development assistance partners (China, Malaysia, Japan, Cuba, Taiwan).

More specific elements of the Australian 'regional assistance' plan have sought to embed Australian finance bureaucrats, marginalise Pacific armed forces and build up Australian-sponsored police forces. Yet these police programs have backfired in PNG and the Solomons.

The Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP) was forced on a reluctant PNG Government in 2004, only to be scuttled by a legal challenge. Canberra bureaucrats had failed to read the PNG Constitution, which does not allow US-style immunities. Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, seemed surprised at the "refusal" of the Papua New Guineans to amend their Constitution, for his convenience.

Much was made of the ECP's proposed A$800 million 'contribution' to PNG. In fact, as Aid/Watch pointed out, A$734 million of this was destined for Australian Federal Police wages and logistics. PNG has grown sick of such 'boomerang aid'. PNG Police Association President, Robert Ali, said most of his 300 officers at a Port Moresby meeting wanted the Australian ECP police to leave. Two hundred overpaid Australian police were unlikely to add much, and were mostly a reassuring gesture to Australian investors in PNG.

After the collapse of the ECP, Michael Somare made this point: "We would like to remove the umbilical cord of depending [on] Australia and diversify our relations with the region and the world". It's not clear that Canberra understands what lies behind this message.

Recent conflict with the Solomons centred around a proposed inquiry into the 2006 riots. The Howard Government seemed determined to avoid any sheeting of blame to the RAMSI force. Yet as Honiara Bishop Terry Roberts wrote, "the 'spark' that sent the rioters into central Honiara .. was the use of tear gas by the Australian RAMSI contingent." Australian police ignored a plea by Speaker of Parliament, Peter Kenilorea, not to use tear gas on the people. Bishop Roberts observes "Honiara people have never liked the Australian RAMSI contingent [who are] sullen and hostile ... 'Helpim fren' has turned into 'Spoilem fren'."

Apart from inept policing, the RAMSI intervention is seen to have been partisan, in propping up the former Kemekza/Rini government, to have backed big expatriate Chinese commercial interests (such as the Pacific Casino Hotel) and to have done nothing about illegal logging. Regional watchdog magazine Masalai I tokaut notes that, after the RAMSI mission arrived, logging tripled but "government revenues remained largely static".

After Solomons Attorney General Julian Moti fled PNG for the Solomons, Downer suspended ministerial talks with the PNG government and was reported to have said Australia 'would not continue to prop up corrupt governments' in the region and would "not just shovel aid into neighbouring countries". Yet behind this insult lies the fact that very little Australian aid reaches Pacific peoples.

PNG is the best example of this. The $10 billion in Australian 'aid' over the 30 years since independence may have secured the rights of Australian mining and gas companies in PNG, but it has not helped mass education, nor helped construct a decent health system. Adult literacy and infant mortality rates in PNG are well below the developing country average. Withdrawal of aid to PNG would have a much greater impact on the handful of Australian companies that hold most of the AusAID contracts. Only a handful of PNG companies get the 'trickle down'; most people in PNG get nothing.

The most stark political intervention in the region has been the Australian-backed campaign that toppled Timor Leste's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The new country's first elected Prime Minister had driven the most independent policy in the region – securing a better deal over oil and gas royalties and bringing in new development partners. Japan helped East Timorese rice production, when Australia would not. China began talks over help in refining gas, while the Howard Government robbed the country's oil and gas resources. And Cuba helped Timor Leste build a decent health system. Alkatiri attempted to NOT alienate the big powers, but a partisan Australian intervention changed all that.

Whatever the prior links between the ex-army coup plotters and the Howard Government, Australian forces quickly aligned with the loose coalition of anti-Fretilin elements that clustered around President Xanana Gusmao. The Australian media, in particular Murdoch's Australian but also the ABC's Four Corners, played a key role in deposing Alkatiri (still the Fretilin General Secretary) and installing Jose Ramos Horta as interim Prime Minister.

However national and municipal elections show that Fretilin remains overwhelmingly the country's most popular party. There is no close rival. Ramos Horta, with no party base, is propped up by the continued Australian presence. Yet the Australian presence, hostile to Fretilin, maintains a rallying point for disaffected groups, including those terrorising the many thousands still trapped in displaced person camps. This tense situation is dangerous, undermining 'normal' politics and is breeding a new militia, the longer it persists.

Understandings of the fragility and serious consequences of Australia's Pacific interventions are poor in Australia, with the corporate media (and an intimidated public media) overwhelmingly promoting the Howard Government line. Further, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Defence Forces have been drawn into this imperial project.

AFP chief Mick Keelty joined the Howard Cabinet chorus that the Moti affair was not at all 'political'. (Certainly, if 'not political' is measured by the numbers of Cabinet Minister interventions, the Moti affair was very apolitical.) Keelty did not explain just why he had chosen the middle of a political crisis to chase the Solomons Attorney General, over sex charges that had been dismissed several years ago in Vanuatu. But we can remind ourselves that the Solomons and the PNG interventions have meant hundreds of millions of dollars to Keelty's AFP.

Political rhetoric on all sides can be transitory. However we will be able to measure the collapse of the Howard Government's Pacific intervention strategy by significant setbacks to its core elements. That is, are our neighbours effectively reclaiming control of their natural resources? Are they developing independent policies that allow them to build public institutions and develop their human resources? And are they effectively diversifying their development partners? It will be to the benefit of their peoples if they do.
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Tim Anderson is an academic and social activist based in Sydney, Australia
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