Independent Senate candidate David Pocock says Senator Zed Seselja’s last-minute mission to the Solomon Islands to avert the now signed security deal with China reflects the Morrison Government’s neglect of the Pacific region.
The Chinese Government announced the signing of the security agreement days after Senator Seselja, as Minister for the Pacific, flew to the Solomons to urge Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare not to go ahead with the deal. The announcement came days before a high-level US mission was due to visit.
“Sending a junior minister to try and salvage things at the eleventh hour was clearly ineffective,” Mr Pocock said. “Unfortunately, this appears typical of the lack of care and respect the government has paid to critical relationships in our region.”
He said Australia’s hostile stance on climate action and the threat Australia’s Pacific neighbours faced had made a significant negative impact on relations, as had the running down of aid and diplomatic capacity.
“Recent increases in spending are temporary, expiring this year and next, and they don’t repair damage done by successive cuts to the aid budget over many years,” Mr Pocock said.
“Likewise, DFAT’s (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) capacity has been sorely depleted, not least by things like the efficiency dividend.”
Mr Pocock said the minister and government talked a big game on defence and national security “but the devil is in the detail and in the delivery – both of which have been shown to be sorely lacking”.
He said Australia needed a united, bi-partisan approach to defence and national security that put Australia’s interests front and centre.
“The political divisions the government has created when it comes to their failures in managing Australia’s relationship with the Solomon Islands are extremely regrettable,” Mr Pocock said.
Labor Foreign Affairs spokesperson Senator Penny Wong called the China pact the worst foreign policy failing in the Pacific since World War II. She said Prime Minister Scott Morrison should have gone to the Solomons not Senator Seselja.
“This should have been something that Mr Morrison dealt with. But he went missing. And instead of taking responsibility, and dealing with this as a leader should in the interests of the nation, he sends a junior woodchuck at the last minute,” she said.
Senator Wong said the Solomons Opposition Leader Matthew Wale warned the Australian Government last August about the proposed deal.
She said the Morrison Government’s approach to climate change had hurt relations with Pacific countries.
Senator Seselja did not respond to questions about taking responsibility for the deal happening on his watch. But in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Marise Payne, he said despite respecting Solomon Islands’ right to make sovereign decisions about its national security, Australia was deeply disappointed.
They said Australia believed the Pacific family was best placed to meet the security needs of the region.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency with which this agreement has been developed, noting its potential to undermine stability in our region,” the statement read. “We continue to seek further clarity on the terms of the agreement, and its consequences for the Pacific region.”
Senator Seselja later told ABC radio that during his visit and in statements Mr Sogavare reaffirmed there would not be Chinese bases there and Australia would remain the security partner of choice.
“There will be ongoing discussions and I’ve been engaging with leaders and counterparts in the region both online but also in person,” Senator Seselja said.
Senator Seselja’s other main challenger in the 21 May federal election, Greens candidate Tjanara Goreng Goreng, said the Solomons Islands pact showed the senator’s and Peter Dutton’s aggressive talk had failed.
“To fix our relationship with our Pacific neighbours, the government needs to focus on aid, climate and diplomacy,” she said.
The Greens peace and disarmament spokesman Senator Jordon Steele-John said earlier this week the party did not see China or the Solomons pact as a threat to Australia.