Australia's Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, who is in Honiara, has held preliminary talks with the Solomon Islands Prime Ministrer, Gordon Darcy Lilo about a timetable for withdrawning the Tongan, Papua New Guinean, New Zealand and Australian troops troops.
The large police contingent from across the Pacific would remain in the Solomons after the troop withdrawal.
Speaker:Stephen Smith, Australian Defence Minister
SMITH: Well I arrived at half time at the footy, Australian Anzac Day football match between Essendon and Collingwood, so I had a quick chat to our troops on arrival. I didn't want to arrive on Anzac Day and not have a quick word to them. But I've got a formal program with them today but after seeing them for a short period of time and thanking them for the contribution that they continue to make, I then went and had a formal meeting with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Lilo, and a subsequent meeting with Police Minister David Tome where we spoke about the Prime Minister and I the very strong relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands, and then a discussion about the RAMSI contingent which has been here now for nearly ten years.
COUTTS: And was that the substance of the meeting with the Prime Minister, just RAMSI, or were there other things that you also brought up?
SMITH: Well firstly we reflect upon the fact given that it was Anzac Day that this is a significant year for the Pacific, the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in Papua New Guinea from where I just come, but also the significant battles in the Pacific, Guadalcanal, Savo, so these are the start if you like of the modern day relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands where we fought side by side. Secondly, whilst the focus has been on the RAMSI contribution through the Pacific Island Forum; Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Tonga in particular so far as a military contribution is concerned. We spoke generally about wanting to enhance the bilateral relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands. And what we've agreed to do is to have a look at the capacity to grow the relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands bilaterally, and one of the things we want to do is to see what possibilities arise in that context for an Australian defence cooperation program in the Solomon Islands. Now the Solomon Islands of course does not have its own defence force or defence organisation. So what we're looking at is a possibility for example of Australian visit or Australian exercises in the Solomon Islands. We're at a very preliminary stage but given that we've had defence-to-defence and military-to-military connections with the Solomon Islands over the last ten years as an Australian part of a RAMSI contingent, the Prime Minister and I thought it would be a good idea to explore these options into the future to enhance our bilateral associations and arrangements. And we then went on to have a very important and substantive conversation about the progress of RAMSI and the prospect of transition so far as the RAMSI contribution to the Solomon Islands is concerned.
COUTTS: Well that was going to be my next question Mr Smith, because that question has become a controversial one, how long will RAMSI stay in and much talk about the exit strategy? Do we know more about that now?
SMITH: Well the Prime Minister and I had a substantive conversation, a very productive and good conversation on that topic. I followed it up with the Police Minister and then the Prime Minister and the Police Minister and his officials and the Australian delegation then had a working dinner last night. But we reflected upon the success of the RAMSI contribution. There are three aspects to the RAMSI contribution, which is now nearly ten years old, firstly a civilian component from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, other Pacific Island Forum countries. Then there's a military contribution, which has been historically Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga, and then a very significant police contribution, because we're now really dealing with a police or law and order or law and justice aspect of the RAMSI contribution. So at the moment we've got over 100 civilians, about 150 military personnel and nearly 200 police officers. But the Prime Minister and I have a shared view, Australia and the Solomon Islands have a shared view that RAMSI has been very successful, it's been very important to bring stability and better law and order to the Solomon Islands. We've come to the conclusion that we should now start a conversation, start to work on transitioning out of the Solomon Islands the military or the defence component or contingent. At the moment for example Australia's got 84 defence personnel, New Zealand have got between 40 and 50, and Papua New Guinea have got nearly 40 and Tonga have got a small number. So we believe the time has come to start a conversation about transitioning that element of the RAMSI force out of the Solomon Islands, leaving a very substantial police contingent to continue building the capacity of the Solomon Islands police force, and also to be on the ground for any response to disturbances or law and order. Now in terms of the drawdown a conversation about the drawdown of the military component of RAMSI, I've also had a conversation with my New Zealand counterpart Jonathon Coleman. I also recently ran into Murray McCully the New Zealand Foreign Minister in Brussels at the NATO ISAF Defence and Foreign Ministers meeting on Afghanistan. And Mr Coleman and Mr McCully and I had agreed that this was the sensible thing to do, and we also took the opportunity in Papua New Guinea over the past couple of days to brief Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill about this prospect. So we've drawn that and brought that to a conclusion. Last night when we had our conversation so we'll start that work now with a view to a drawdown in an orderly way of the defence or military component of RAMSI, but most importantly we will have on a continuing basis the very strong presence of the RAMSI police component to continue to train and build the capacity of the Solomon Islands police force, and to continue to be on the ground for any required response.
COUTTS: Has there been a discussion on timelines to start the drawdown and to the exit date?
SMITH: Well we haven't come to any firm conclusions on that. We firstly have to satisfy ourselves that we've got to that point in the cycle where the military or defence drawdown is the correct thing to do. That's certainly our shared disposition. We're not going to do it in a precipitous way or in a sudden way. Certainly we're not expecting that anything would occur before next year. So we'll do it in an orderly way. I wouldn't expect that we'd be looking at anything before the middle of next year. But this is something of course which is not just a conversation between Australia and the Solomon Islands, we need to do it formally through the RAMSI framework. And in terms of a defence or a military contribution, as I said, the Pacific Island countries who make that contribution are Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and a small number from Tonga. So we'll need to do that formally through the RAMSI framework in a couple of months. There is on a regular basis what's called a RAMSI ministerial framework meeting, and in a couple of months in May from memory there'll be the next regular ministerial forum meeting of RAMSI. And we'll have the first formal discussion about the transition of the military or defence component at that meeting. But it's very important that we do it in an orderly way. It's also very important that we understand that over the ten year period the RAMSI component has very much changed to a law and justice and public security emphasis, and that's why there will be a continuing presence of a substantial police deployment. It's already the case at the moment for example that the military component of RAMSI is just over 150 and the police contingent, which brings in a range of other Pacific Island countries, is in the order of a couple hundred, just short of 200.
COUTTS: So when this drawdown does happen with RAMSI this new defence cooperation that you've talked about will take its place?
SMITH: Well not so much take its place, because RAMSI it's a Regional Assistance Mission which has been essentially authorised and supported over a long period of time by the Pacific Island Forum countries, so it's a regional peacekeeping and stabilisation measure. But because we've had as an individual country, Australia and the Solomon Islands have had those deep contacts through RAMSI over the last ten years because we're very close friends and partners and because yesterday we reflected upon the historical associations and deep significance of that, the Prime Minister and I thought it would be a good thing just to explore that possibility. The notion of from time to time an Australian defence presence in the Solomon Islands is something that in the past when I've had my discussions with Solomon Island Prime Ministers and ministers, there's always been a fondness or an attraction for that. But we just need to work through that carefully because as I say the Solomon Islands itself does not have a defence force, it's not proposing to have one. But I'm from a personal point of view attracted to the notion of ongoing contact between the Australian Defence Force and the Solomon Islands. So it's not intended to take its place, to take the place of RAMSI. RAMSI will certainly continue into the foreseeable future but with that emphasis on public security, law and order, law and justice and that police contingent continuing to train and build the capacity of the Solomon Islands police force.