AUSTRALIA and Solomon Islands enjoy a close bond – indeed, we are Pacific family. The Blue Pacific is our shared home, our common region.
The Coral Sea links us forever and continental drift is in fact pushing us closer together.
But our deep friendship is based on much more than shared geography. We are bound together by our common values as democratic countries committed to peace, a rich spiritual life and a shared determination to give every individual, man, woman, girl and boy, the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Family stick together, through the good times and the tough times.
Australia partnered with Solomon Islands during some of the country’s darkest moments, including through RAMSI to help restore stability and law and order. And Solomon Islands has been there for Australia, with people across the country reaching into their hearts to raise funds for the communities ravaged by devastating bushfires in 2019-2020. This is what real friendship and partnership looks like.
Since RAMSI concluded, Australia has only deepened its commitment to working with the government and the people of Solomon Islands to achieve high quality development outcomes and promote genuine prosperity.
Our partnership has focused on building a stronger, more resilient, more prosperous, and more inclusive Solomon Islands. We do things together, sitting down together, talking and listening, and looking at what works and what doesn’t. This takes time, commitment, and genuine mutual respect.
Australia’s approach has always been founded on an unshakeable core principle: Australia responding to priorities identified by Solomon Islands and working in partnership. That’s exactly the way it should be.
And Australia has been always willing to demonstrate our commitment in real assistance, not just words. Since RAMSI concluded, we have provided some SBD 5 billion through our development program in the areas of health, education, agriculture, infrastructure, governance and justice, gender and policing.
Building on our longstanding health program, Australia has been working with Solomon Islands to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to draft the national response plan and establishing a testing capability at the very beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, supplying 500,000 vaccine doses, delivering over 40 tonnes of COVID-19 medical supplies and equipment, despatching an Australian Medical Assistance Team to provide specialist advice tohealth officials and deploying two RAAF C-27 cargo aircraft in February this year, which conducted 54 inter-island missions to distribute around 50 tonnes of food and medical supplies across the country.
Australia hasn’t forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic that Solomon Islands is still confronting other serious health challenges. We need to beat COVID-19 but we also need to beat NCDs, childhood stunting and infectious diseases like dengue and malaria. And we have to do this right across the country. The benefit of Australia’s health support is felt particularly in the provinces.
Both countries know of course that development needs to come with stability and security if it is to be sustained. Through our policing and defence cooperation programs, Australia has invested deeply over the last 20 years in building a stable and secure Solomon Islands, helping to develop the capacities of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), constructing security infrastructure such as police stations, delivering two Guardian-class patrol boats and a range of smaller boats, supporting the safe disposal of unexploded Second World War ordnance, and providing substantial logistics assistance to the 2019 elections.
Australia’s approach to security cooperation is founded on a deep respect for Solomon Islands’ sovereignty. Our Bilateral Security Treaty is up on the web for everyone to see. Transparency always matters.
Security and stability can never be taken for granted. That is why Australia has continued to step up to do more. Responding to a request from the Solomon Islands Government last November, Australia deployed Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police personnel under our Bilateral Security Treaty to help restore law and order during the civil unrest. They operate under the command and direction of the RSIPF, responding to the needs of the Solomon Islands Government.
The deployment of Australian forces came with another crucial element.
They didn’t deploy alone. Just like under RAMSI, they came together with the region – Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand. Underscoring the deep regional bonds which unite us as members of the Pacific family, together we are supporting the RSIPF under the Solomons International Assistance Force (SIAF). The Australian and Solomon Islands Governments have agreed to keep SIAF in place until the Pacific Games in late 2023.
More needs to be done to reinforce the national security and sovereignty of Solomon Islands. Responding to requests from the Solomon Islands Government, Australia has agreed to build patrol boat outposts on the western and eastern borders and an integrated and interoperable radio network across the country.
At the same time, we have been delivering transformative projects like the Coral Sea Cable and the Solomon Islands Domestic Network, providing faster and more reliable internet, and the SBD1.5 billion Solomon Islands Infrastructure Program, which will construct new and improved infrastructure, such as markets in four provinces, tap into local content and help drive broad-based economic growth.
Our partnership has responded to support community demands for education and training. Australia has committed substantial resources, investing in the Solomon Islands’ education system at all levels – primary, secondary, tertiary and technical. There’s nothing more powerful than being able to travel around this country, across all nine provinces, to see this education program at work in towns and villages. Again, we haven’t done this alone. Our education program has been delivered in conjunction with New Zealand, another member of the Pacific family.
Over 450 Solomon Islanders have been supported to study at tertiary institutions under our scholarships, bringing skills and knowledge back home when they graduate. At the same time, Australia’s labour mobility programs have grown at a truly phenomenal rate. In 2019, 189 Solomon
Islanders were working in Australia; today there are over 3,000. These workers are earning good incomes, acquiring new skills and expanding their own horizons.
Over the years, nearly 800 Australians have come to Solomon Islands to do volunteer work in a wide range of sectors, bringing their energies and skills to bear to support this wonderful country. Robin Bowden was the first way back in 1963, coming to Solomon Islands straight after she graduated. Now that international borders are opening up, we are all looking forward to Australia’s volunteer program restarting in earnest.
A few volunteers are already on the ground. More are on the way.
Over the last two decades, Australia has proved that it is a steadfast family member. We stand ready to support Solomon Islands as we have always done. The Blue Pacific is indeed our shared home, now and forever.
Op-ed By Dr Lachlan Strahan,
Australian High Commissioner to Solomon Islands