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PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE INTERVIEW - Wednesday 25th October, 2006

GEORGE NEGUS: Professor, on the face of it, it would appear that this week at the Pacific Islands Forum has been a good one for John Howard, you could say that he had a victory. But is it as simple as that? Because those angry, antagonistic rumblings are still coming from the likes of Michael Somare and Prime Minister Sogavare from the Solomons.

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: Yeah, I think that's right, George. I would score it, at best, a draw. I think Sogavare went to the forum wanting to make a few points. He didn't get everything he wanted but he got a fair bit of it. Howard, I think, managed to fight off his attack to a certain extent. But even if you score it a draw, it is still a loss for Australia and it is still a loss for the Solomons because what we have seen…

GEORGE NEGUS: Why is that, Hugh?

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: What we're seeing is an undermining of the basis of trust which is essential if the RAMSI project is to succeed. It is unprecedented, almost, internationally for Australia to play the kind of leading role we are playing in this very intense engagement in the internal affairs of the Solomons. And if there isn't a better relationship of trust between the Solomon Islands Government and the Australian Government, it is very hard to see how this can work. And I don't think anything we have seen over the last few days out of Fiji has given us any confidence that that bilateral relationship is getting back on the rails.

GEORGE NEGUS: How would you describe, and we toss the term RAMSI around as though we really know what it means. But how would you describe what RAMSI is supposed to be doing in the Solomon Islands?

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: Very important question. There are two parts to it really. The first thing RAMSI was meant to be doing when it went in initially, back in 2003, was to suppress the violence, particularly in Honiara, which had sort of pulled the Solomons apart as a country. But after that, the really big, long-term, important job was to get right in there and try and rebuild the Solomon Islands' political and government institutions. What we had there was a state which had virtually ceased to function, and what Australia and the other partners in RAMSI set out to do was to help the Solomons actually rebuild their government almost from the ground up. Now, that is a very intimate, engaged process and if you don't have the trust of the people who are running the government you're trying to rebuild, it is very hard to see how you're going to get anywhere. I think we've lost that.

GEORGE NEGUS: Mark Davis, our reporter, has been speaking to Prime Minister Sogavare and he said this about RAMSI - "If they push us too far," meaning Australia, I presume, "we lose nothing by repealing the Act that governs the presence of RAMSI in the Solomon Islands. We lose nothing, mate." In other words he wants to see the back end of them. Do you think it would come to that?

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: Look, it could come to that. Sogavare is a pretty confrontational character. I think in some ways he has behaved pretty irresponsibly about some of this stuff. But the Government here in Canberra, I think, has been assuming that whatever happens, RAMSI won't be thrown out of the Solomons because it is too important to them. I think that is too complacent. I think there is a chance if this thing isn't managed a good deal better than we've seen over the last few months and the last few days that RAMSI will be thrown out of the Solomons. And I think Sogavare's comment you just quoted demonstrates his willingness to go that far.

GEORGE NEGUS: Words like, or adjectives like 'arrogant', 'insulting', 'patronising' have been used by people like Michael Somare, Sir Michael Somare. How would you describe Australia's behaviour in this whole episode?

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: I certainly think the kind of conduct we have seen in the relationship between Australia and the Solomons and between Australia and PNG over the last few weeks has been pretty unsatisfactory. I think there has been an element of arrogance and arbitrariness about it. Mind you, I think there has been some fairly unsatisfactory conduct on the other side as well. I think that both sides carry some of the blame. The disappointing thing is that in order to make something like RAMSI work - and for that matter John Howard's broader vision of Australia's new, more engaged role in the South Pacific - we need to move past that kind of old stuff, the kind of accusations of neocolonialism which have been around for so long. And I think the problem with the way our government has handled this whole affair with Moti over the last few weeks has been it has drawn us back to that bad old era of the petty, confrontational questions over issues which are in themselves pretty irrelevant.

GEORGE NEGUS: It is a heck of a mess. How widespread do you think this disgruntled attitude towards Australia is concerned? How much the disenchantment is there with this country from other Pacific Island leaders?

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: I think there is a level of dissatisfaction, you can see that coming out of the forum, with the way in which this issue in particular has been handled. I think that it is against the background of a lot of respect for what Australia has been trying to do in RAMSI. I think Australia has got some brownie points for trying to take on the very tough challenges in the Solomons. But the way in which this issue has been handled over the last little while, and some disappointment about the way RAMSI has been performing more broadly, has helped to undermine those positive messages. And I think we saw that coming out of Suva. The other thing, of course, is that there is a lot of disappointment in the forum, in amongst the Pacific Island countries about the way Australia is approaching the broader agenda of political reform in the South Pacific. They still hear a lot of lectures. But what they don't see is Australia stepping up on key issues like labour mobility. They're all very keen to see provision made for Pacific Islanders to be able to come and work in Australia on short-term working visas. New Zealand just today has announced an expansion of their scheme. I think there's a lot of disappointment that Australia hasn't been prepared to step up to the plate on that sort of issue.

GEORGE NEGUS: Finally, Hugh, as a professional observer of the situation, what would you give Australia out of 10 in its performance as a Pacific leader?

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: I would give us something like 8 out of 10 for the vision of RAMSI and I would give it something like 3 out of 10, at best, for the implementation of RAMSI so far. And 1 out of 10 for diplomacy over the last few weeks.

GEORGE NEGUS: 1 out of 10? Being very generous with the diplomacy.

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: I'm being very generous.

GEORGE NEGUS: Hugh, good to talk to you. Thanks very much for your time.

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE: My pleasure as always.