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Paul Monk


            In January this year, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer declared that Australia would not intervene in the Solomons, because such intervention simply would not work. Yet, in July, it was announced that Australia would intervene in the Solomons. That intervention was endorsed by the Solomons legislature in mid-July and is now under way. This about turn in Australia’s policy within six months is significant in several ways that call for close attention.

The policy shift involved a judgment, based on complex considerations, which has long term implications for our role in the South Pacific. If those implications are to be handled responsibly, the basis of the judgment needs to be made as explicit as possible. Only if that is done will it be possible to monitor the precise extent to which the policy is achieving its ends, or running into difficulties.

The most detailed case for intervention in the Solomons that circulated, both in Cabinet and in public in the months and weeks leading to the policy shift, is a study prepared by Elsina Wainright, under Hugh White’s direction, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI): Our Failing Neighbour: Australia and the Future of the Solomon Islands. As the Cabinet papers on the subject are likely to remain classified for decades, this report is the closest we have to a public articulation of the reasons for intervention. It needs, therefore, to be looked at very carefully.

In his introduction to the report, Hugh White remarked that the Solomon Islands are “our most acute challenge” in the South Pacific, because “state failure” there was far advanced. He offered, “in broad outline” a proposal for a new policy, “fully aware of the costs and risks that it would entail and of the consequent seriousness of a decision to adopt it. Such decisions should only be based on a clear sense of the scale of the national interests involved, and on an understanding that the choice is a complex one and that others may draw different conclusions from the ones presented here.”

“Our tentative hypothesis”, he went on “is that the costs and risks are worth taking. Our interests, both current and contingent, are substantial. The costs can be shared and the risks minimized, by drawing on the lessons that others have learned in recent years in many parts of the world in helping failed and failing states to rehabilitate themselves. Nevertheless, our purpose here is less to advocate a particular solution than to stimulate thinking.”

What was the “tentative hypothesis” advanced in the ASPI report? That a multilateral intervention involving 150 police for a year could restore order, at a cost of $A97 million.  But that a sustained ten year program of assistance, costing $A78 million per annum for the first two years, $A75 million per annum after that, would be necessary in order to put the Solomons back on its feet as a viable state. In short, that a decade-long commitment costing $A853 million, should be undertaken to save “our failing neighbour”.

What the report did not spell out was that this sum of money is roughly twice the Solomon Islands current annual GDP and almost ten times the value of the annual trade between Australia and the Solomon Islands before the downward spiral precipitated by the coup in the islands on 5 June 2000. Moreover, these figures were based on a highly conservative estimate of the number of Australian or other foreign personnel who would be required for the operation.

Quite rightly, in the light even of these rudimentary arithmetic calculations, the report allowed that the “tough question for Australia is whether the costs and risks of this kind of deeper engagement are justified by the scale of our interests.” Unfortunately, from the point of view of serious public debate, it supplied altogether too little evidence on which to base a sound answer to that “tough question”.

What is the scale of our interests in the Solomons, against which to balance the costs and risks very roughly sketched out by the ASPI team? There seem to be only extremely modest economic interests, which would certainly not justify even the level of expenditure recommended by the report. It offers three other interests, though, as grounds for intervention - given the basic claim that the Solomons is a failing state which is unlikely to be able to set itself to rights without intervention.

First, we should prevent the Solomons from becoming a haven for transnational crime. Second, we should prevent democratic governance from failing in the Solomons. Third, we should ensure that the Solomons does not become a base for a foreign power, from which an attack could be made on Australia.  

These are all Australian interests and each of the three claims is supported by a number of considerations. What the report did not do, however, was offer even an indicative estimate of the degree of risk in each case, or of the costs to Australia to set against the costs of intervention. Nor are any objections entertained in the body of the report; neither to the main claim that we should intervene, nor to any of the three reasons supporting that claim, nor to any of the ten or so reasons offered in support of those reasons.

What, then, makes the matter of intervention such a “tough question”?  Possibly vague uneasiness about possible cost overruns or unarticulated objections, but chiefly, I should think, the fact that intervention takes us “across a major threshold” and challenges “the foundations of our policy in the Southwest Pacific”. We are, as the report states, at risk of being seen as “neo-colonialists”. We are certainly sailing into poorly charted waters.

Our policy, for a generation, has consisted of giving considerable economic aid to the island states of the Southwest Pacific, while leaving them to make their own decisions about their economic and political affairs. That this policy has worked badly has been increasingly apparent for some time. The Howard government has been grappling with the consequences of that failure and incrementally adjusting its policy since at least 1998. Intervention in the Solomons, however, does take us across a significant threshold.

The threshold we are crossing has written over it: “Moral Hazard”. A generation ago, the island states of Melanesia and Polynesia, the largest of them Papua New Guinea, were almost all granted independence from Western colonial tutelage. What is failing is their first attempts at being independent nation states. Those failures have occurred for a number of reasons, but one of the central ironies in case after case has been the irresponsibility engendered by reliance on Australian economic aid.

By intervening to “rescue” the Solomons, we risk setting a precedent. Other island states including the big one - PNG - could look upon a determined Australian commitment as an excuse for not putting their own houses in order, because they expect to be bailed out. Where will that lead our policy-makers? And even the costs in the Solomons need to be looked at carefully.

Suppose our costs blow out only a little and we spend a billion dollars in the Solomons over the next decade. Suppose, further, that our efforts are as successful as they might conceivably be and all our reforms of Solomons governance take root. Suppose, however, that, in the interim, the other island states continue to flounder and that, one after another, they request that Australia step in? As one wit in the US Congress remarked many years ago of Pentagon profligacy, “A billion here, a billion there and soon you’ll be talking serious money!”

And that is on the assumption that things go well. They might not. Suppose we spend a billion dollars in the Solomons without being able to generate ethnic cooperation, economic solvency, sustainable resource management, responsible indigenous governance and a reduction in the ruinous rate of population increase? What then? It is, after all, one thing to boldly step in, but quite another to sustain bipartisan policy consensus and public support for a policy that runs into apparently intractable difficulties. It is disconcerting that ASPI did not ponder things in these terms.

Two implications would seem to flow from such considerations. The first is that we are not simply crossing a threshold in regard to our Southwest Pacific policy, but in regard to our overall strategic policy. The second is that a tentative policy hamstrung by fears of “the perils of neo-colonialism” is likely to avoid hard choices and dig itself into an economic and political bog in Melanesia.

A capacity to intervene in the island regions around us, both to buttress basic security and to “win the peace” has been a desideratum of the Howard government since its inception. The Solomons intervention takes this to a new level and should be made an  occasion for reinforcing a fundamental rethinking of our security budget allocations and force structure priorities.

            What is also vital is that the aid and support being rendered from now on, not in the Solomons alone but throughout the region, be conditional on basic reforms in governance and economic development, in order to get to the root of the political and economic malaise afflicting Melanesia. As Helen Hughes has remarked, “The Pacific will not change direction as long as largely unconditional aid flows make it unnecessary.”

            There is, in short, a rationale for intervening in the Solomons, but more than that is needed if such intervention is to be carried through to an effective outcome. ASPI provided a rationale which seems to have helped crystallize Cabinet opinion on the subject, but not the harder thinking vital if the operation is to be rationally justified.

To that extent, the intervention might be called ASPI-rational. It is certainly aspirational. That’s not enough, however. Solomonic wisdom will be necessary from this point forward, to lead a process of security policy reform in this country and economic and political reform throughout the Southwest Pacific region, absent which the policy of expensive intervention will prove to be as futile as the labor of Sisyphus - that classical figure doomed to roll a rock up a hill time after time, only to see it roll down again and have to start over. So, where are our Solomons?