Topics: Australian assistance to Solomon Islands; confirmation of vessel off Australia’s coast.
LIAM BARTLETT: Joining us this morning is the Federal Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews. Minister, good morning to you.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Liam. How are you?
LIAM BARTLETT: I’m well. Thank you very much for your time. I know you’re flat out on this; your office is incredibly busy, understandably, so we really appreciate it. Minister, the leaders of these protests have consistently called for peace, and yet Mr Sogavare has been quick to blame them. How do you read it?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I think that there’s a range of issues that the Solomon Islands people need to deal with, as does their Government. But from the Australian Government’s point of view, we are very concerned about the ongoing unrest in Honiara, and it’s clearly very important for the people of the Solomon Islands that public order is re-established quickly. That’s why yesterday there were 23 Australian Federal Police officers deployed to the Solomon Islands. There will be more today. There’s also Australian Defence Force personnel that will be deployed today. That’s being done so we can work very closely with the Solomon Islands Police Force to restore law and public order as soon as we possibly can.
LIAM BARTLETT: What’s your intelligence telling you, Minister, about how bad it is on the streets of Honiara, or potentially how bad it could become?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well we know that there are significant issues. They’ve clearly escalated over the last couple of days. We are very hopeful – confident even – that with the presence of the Australian Federal Police there and an increasing presence with the AFP and also with the ADF that this will go a long way towards their being a very peaceful resolution.
LIAM BARTLETT: Prime Minister Sogavare this morning was blaming foreign powers for encouraging civil unrest. Those countries that don’t want ties with China. Is he talking about us?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, we are responding directly to a request for assistance from the Solomon Islands Government, and we’re doing that in terms of the treaty that we had entered into with the Solomon Islands in 2017. So this is a direct request from the Prime Minister and his government. So I would suggest from that that they want Australia to support them in dealing with the significant unrest that they have there. We are only there because of that direct invitation and direct request for assistance.
LIAM BARTLETT: Okay. So when he blames foreign powers, who do you think he’s talking about?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, that’s a matter for him to determine and I understand there’s a range of issues that he is dealing with at the moment. From the Australian Government’s point of view, we’re actually focused on working very closely with the police force in the Solomon Islands to restore peace and stability into the region. Now, clearly, the Pacific Islands are very important to us. They are strategically important to us, but we have a very longstanding relationship with the Pacific Islands. They are our neighbours. The Solomon Islands is one of our closest neighbours. So we do want to make sure that there is stability in the region.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yes, absolutely. But Minister this is a government – as you would well know – that has presided over increasing levels of corruption; refuses to be part of any reconciliation moves by Malaita; it’s now trying to extend its mandate illegally by a year, and now we’re just happy to help them?
KAREN ANDREWS: We are happy to respond positively to the request – the direct request – for assistance that was made to us. Clearly there are a number of matters that the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands needs to deal with, and we would encourage him to deal with those matters as an issue of priority very clearly. But our responsibility under our treaty is to provide them with the assistance they need so that law and public order can be restored. I think that Australians would expect us to be able to assist our neighbours in the Pacific Islands, and we’ve been asked directly to do that, and that’s what we’re responding to. We make no comments in relation to domestic political matters.
LIAM BARTLETT: But while we help them pick up the pieces and put Australian bodies on the line – we are putting them at risk – where are the Chinese in this? Where are the Chinese peacekeepers?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I don’t have any idea what China’s position is on this at the moment. I’m very focused on Australia’s position, and Australia’s position is very clearly that we will provide the support that we have been asked to do. Look, clearly Australians are very conscious of what is happening in the Pacific Island areas, and we want to make sure that Australians understand that the Morrison Government is doing all that it can to support our neighbours in the Pacific Islands and that we want that to be a very stable situation there. It’s important to us strategically; they are our friends; they are our neighbours; we want stability there. It’s good for the Indo-Pacific region to make sure that there is stability in the Solomon Islands and in neighbouring islands.
LIAM BARTLETT: It is so important. I don’t think any of our listeners would disagree with you on that point. But can you see the point I’m making? I mean, if the government – the Solomons Government – is painting this simply as violent protestors who don’t want to be associated with China, it ignores all the social dislocation that it has been responsible for. It’s a convenient excuse, isn’t it?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I think you’ve got to look at it in terms of what is the priority for Australia and Australians. I do hear you very clearly on the point that you are making there. But what I do need to say and do need to make very clear is that our priority as a Government is to assist the Solomon Islands in restoring law and public order. That is a step that we are obligated to make under the terms of the treaty. It’s also something that we wish to do as a nation. There are a range of issues that the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands needs to deal with. That is a matter for him and for his Government.
LIAM BARTLETT: Minister, just to a related topic before you leave us, are you unhappy about the revelation the Chinese spy ship has been spending three weeks off the east coast trying to suck up intelligence?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I can definitely confirm that a Chinese military vessel did operate off Australia’s east coast. That happened in August of this year. We are certainly not complacent about it. I think everyone does accept that Australia has very strong border protection. So we were aware of that vessel. We were aware that it transited through the Torres Strait. So we knew it was there. We monitored its actions. We were certainly not complacent about the fact that there was a Chinese military vessel off the east coast of Australia. But what we do, is support and respect the rights of all states to exercise their lawful freedom of navigation. That’s what was being done at that point in time. We were clearly monitoring that, but we also expect that other nations, other states, will respect our rights to do so as well. So we can be in the South China Sea, absolutely, and that needs to be respected.
LIAM BARTLETT: Do you know what sort of material they’re looking for? Are they just monitoring our military installations or what do they do? How does that work?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, more than likely they’re trying to collect as much intelligence on a wide range of issues as they possibly can. So they would be looking for signal information, they would be making their own observations. They would be mapping the area so they’ve got a detailed understanding of what’s there. But there’s a whole range of things that they would be looking at and, quite frankly, for national security reasons that is as far as I can go.
LIAM BARTLETT: All right. Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning. Good to talk to you.
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s a pleasure. Take care.