Press Conference - Canberra, ACT

Transcript
25 Nov 2021
Canberra, ACT
Prime Minister
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: I'm joined by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and joined by the Minister for the Pacific. A planned protest yesterday in the Solomon Islands escalated into a series of incidents leading to public disorder. This included the destruction of a leaf hut just adjacent to the Parliament, a Police Station and a high school. The situation remains volatile, with reasonably large crowds on the move. The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has been stretched. As of an hour ago, we have received reports of more buildings burning on the main road in the centre of Honiara, including a large commercial building and a bank branch, and there are an increasing number of people on the streets. I can confirm, though, as can the Minister of Foreign Affairs, that all Australian High Commission staff are safely accounted for as our locally engaged staff at this time. We've been monitoring these developments since yesterday and over the course of today.

Earlier this afternoon, I received a formal request from the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Sogavare. Under our 2017 bilateral security agreement under Article two, clause one, for assistance for the provision of safety and security of the Solomon Islands. And to support the Solomon Islands police force. I convened the National Security Committee of Cabinet following the receipt of that request, and we met after question time today immediately. And the Australian Government has agreed to respond to that request and we've agreed to send a detachment of 23 AFP personnel who are deploying immediately, in fact, even as we speak, to support riot control and up to 50 further AFP will deploy to support security at critical infrastructure. I note that critical infrastructure does not include the Parliament or the executive buildings of the government. That will be dealt with by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. In addition, 43 ADF personnel will join them tomorrow. Those initial 23 AFP. And they will be approved to reinforce AFP to support security at critical infrastructure, in the first instance, at the airport where they will remain. That will include a detachment from 3rd Brigade and all of these are from Townsville, obviously, 3rd Brigade, 17th Brigade Medical and 6th Brigade Military Police. In addition, one of our patrol boats will also be sent to the area. Arrangements for that are being made now to support patrolling in the region. At least five DFAT personnel will also supplement High Commission staff and ADF airlift support, with two flights commencing this evening, carrying AFP personnel and equipment and a third flight tomorrow available to carry further AFP and ADF personnel as required.

I want to stress, as I have in my discussion with Prime Minister Sogavare earlier prior to this media conference, as well as when I spoke to Prime Minister Ardern, as well as Prime Minister Bainimarama and Prime Minister Marape, from Fiji and and Papua New Guinea, that our purpose here is to provide stability and security to enable the normal constitutional processes within the Solomon Islands to be able to deal with the various issues that have arisen and that that be done in a climate of peace and stability and security. It is not the Australian Government's intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands, that is for them to resolve. I've made that very clear. Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands. It is there in direct response to requests made by the Prime Minister so we can be present to assist the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to be able to ensure the police can provide stability and security so the normal constitutional processes can be undertaken. We anticipate this will be a deployment for a matter of weeks, but obviously we'll be assessing this on a very regular basis and we wish those who are heading out this evening all the best for their safety. I thank them for their service and those who will be joining them tomorrow.

Our Pacific family is very dear to us as Australians. It's very dear to us and we have always been there to help our Pacific family when they have needed us. And this is such a time. We believe in their sovereignty. We believe in their self-determination and we believe in them being able to resolve these issues and to advance in accordance with their constitutional processes and their democracies. And we want to support them to be able to do this. They are our family and as a result, when they need our help, they will receive it, whether it's in relation to natural disasters, when they need our help, or whether it's been in relation to COVID when they've needed vaccines and other support with the rollout of the vaccination programme and regrettably, in a situation like this where there is once again civil unrest, we are there to help them because they are very dear to us as part of our Pacific family. I want to thank the other nations of whom I've spoken to Papua New Guinea and Fiji. And of course, Prime Minister Bainimarama is currently the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum of Leaders, and I'm very grateful for their support and their understanding of the role that Australia is playing here. Equally, I'm very appreciative of the New Zealand Government as we both share a passion for our Pacific family, and I thank them for their support in the response that we have been making. And with that, I'll pass you on to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Given the lateness of the hour and the nature of this issue, happy to take questions on this matter and I'll pass you on to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks, Prime Minister. And let me acknowledge also Minister Seselja, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Thank you very much for the opportunity to make a few comments, Prime Minister, to reinforce your message, particularly that this is a matter we have taken very seriously. Following the request from Prime Minister Sogavare, I have been in touch with Foreign Minister Manele. I've spoken with him earlier today and remained in touch during the day as events have unfolded. This is first and foremost about the stability of our friend and neighbour, the Solomon Islands, and therefore about stability in the Pacific and Australia's contribution is made in that context. We do continue to urge calm and for an end to violence in in Honiara, at this time.

I want to be also very clear about the travel advice which pertains to Australians in the Solomon Islands. DFAT's travel advice advises Australians to avoid demonstrations and protests, to monitor local media for issues, to avoid areas affected by protests and roadblocks, and to follow the advice of local authorities. The Australian High Commission is advising via social media that a curfew is in place and a lockdown has been issued in Honiara until 7am on Friday, the 26th of November. Australians in horror in Honiara are encouraged to exercise care, avoid crowds and remain where they are, if it is safe to do so and to be aware that the Solomon Islands Government has put in place that overnight curfew and lockdown. We will continue to review that travel advice as the hours and and time pass to ensure that it is appropriate. We will support Australians who may be in Honiara. I can also advise that the Australian mission in Honiara remains operational, that all staff and families are safe and they are supporting the government in the provision of information about events as they unfold. Thanks, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Zed.

SENATOR THE HON. ZED SESELJA, MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC: Thank you, PM, thank you, Foreign Minister. Just briefly to back up in relation to our relationship with our Pacific family, we have over these past couple of years in particular seen great challenges and we've been responding to those challenges. The health crisis, economic crisis, natural disasters and others. And this is another example that we will step up as needed. We will step up for our Pacific family and our close neighbours. The Solomon Islands, of course, are a key partner with us. We have a very strong relationship, and this support that we are offering in response to this request will be to ensure that we continue to work for the stability and the security of the Pacific. And of course, we send out our best wishes to our personnel who are going to be on the ground on behalf of Australia, responding to one of our closest neighbours.

PRIME MINISTER: Happy to take a few questions.

JOURNALIST: Can I clarify the ADF, the ADF and the AFP will be heading, can you clarify how they'll be commanded or will they be under local control? Or will they have their own control? And secondly, have you reached out to the Opposition Leader?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I have. Yeah, I spoke to the Opposition Leader, I was able to catch him before he, he may have been on the plane, but was able to speak to him and advise him of this, and we would probably speak further this evening when he arrives with where he's going. And so yes, I was able to do that and they'll be under the direction of our commanders. But obviously there to support the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. We are there to support them in what they are doing and to provide that backup, particularly in relation to the critical infrastructure that is there. And it's been important for us to be very clear with our other Pacific Island nations and particularly with the Prime Minister Sogavare, about the nature of our involvement and particularly that those other and those other key infrastructure, such as the Parliament and the executive buildings, are being directly including close personal protection for any governments and ministers, that is being done by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

JOURNALIST: The Solomon Islands Opposition Leader has called for the PM to stand down. Has Australia assured him about not intervening in the way it was discussed?

PRIME MINISTER: I might ask the Foreign Minister to speak, but obviously we've been able to get in contact with the Prime Minister because he was the one who wrote to me under the treaty and provided our response to him. But, Foreign Minister.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, Australia does not take a position on the internal matters in the Solomon Islands. I expect, and I'm confident that our Post in Honiara is engaging with all relevant officials across across the Honiara system, and that includes a range of members of Parliament, as you would expect, to ensure that we are clearly conveying the reasons that Australia has taken this step, the formal request that was received under the bilateral security treaty of 2017. And our focus on supporting the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

JOURNALIST: Two questions, if I may. Firstly, are you confident that the unity of the Solomon Islands, of the islands can be maintained. And secondly, to what extent are larger geopolitical tensions responsible for this escalation in violence in what we're seeing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't in relation to the second question, no, I don't believe there's any direct correlation between those two events and we have no certainly, no advice to that, to that end. These are issues that are occurring within the Solomon Islands. In relation sorry to the other matter?

JOURNALIST: Are you confident [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is why we're going. To provide that support and and our assistance, and it's our hope and ambition that our presence will seek to calm the situation in the Solomon Islands and to restore some peacefulness, which will enable the normal peaceful ways of seeking to resolve any issues there which Australia has no part in to directly resolving and allowing the normal constitutional processes and the political processes in the Solomon Islands to take their course.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, when you say geopolitical isn't part of the equation, the Sogavare Government has switched its allegiance quite publicly to China. Is this a consideration for Australia as we go in?

PRIME MINISTER: That is a matter entirely for the government of Solomon Islands. And when I was there a number of years ago, Australia was consulted on this matter and my answer was very straightforward. This is a matter for the Solomon Islands Government. Australia makes its own decisions on these issues, and of course, the government of Solomon Islands makes their decisions on these issues. They are a democratically elected government. They make their own decisions on matters such as that. It is not for Australia to be seeking to guide them on those matters.

JOURNALIST: But it's clearly a relevant factor to some of the tensions that we are seeing, given the difference of opinion across much of the [inaudible] province, which is ...

PRIME MINISTER: I'm sorry, I took your question that was there any sort of external influences that were involved in this. And there's certainly nothing to suggest that that we have in front of us. I mean, there is clearly lots of different views within the Solomon Islands about those and other matters. But again, they are domestic expressions about those issues. They are not the result of the actions of, to the best of our knowledge, of any other agency outside of the Solomon Islands.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, before the last election, you promised to protect both gay students and Australian ...

PRIME MINISTER: I already made my comment on those things.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: But I'm dealing right now, Paul, with great respect, there are 23 Australian Federal Police officers who are on a plane going to a part of the Pacific where they are facing civil unrest, and they are doing that for weeks out from Christmas. Now I'm happy to answer questions, particularly while we're dealing with those issues. So why don't we focus on that?

JOURNALIST: If you'll come back to, you ...

PRIME MINISTER: I'm going to go around the rest of the press conference, I already made statements at the start of the press conference about- we are standing here before you today because of a security situation that has emerged in the South Pacific, and Australians are on their way to provide that support. That's where my focus is right now. Your focus might be somewhere else.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] Australians are there and whether they'll be offered direct security from the police force or the ADF?

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: That's not, that's not the purpose of this deployment. The purpose of this deployment is in support of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. We expect all Australians who are in Honiara to do, to act, as I said, in accordance with the Australian travel advice, which has been reinforced in terms of the avoidance of demonstrations and protests and to monitor local media for issues. As I said before.

JOURNALIST: Do we have special forces on standby to go in and will any of the Australian personnel have arms and be authorised to use lethal force?

PRIME MINISTER: Our deployed personnel will carry both lethal and non-lethal weapons, primarily but not exclusively, for force protection purposes. The deployment that we're making, as I said out of 3rd Brigade and 17th Brigade and 6th Brigade out of Townsville, are the units that we've decided to deploy.

JOURNALIST: Has there been any discussion about other nations, be it New Zealand or Fiji also contributing to sending assistance to the Solomon Islands?

PRIME MINISTER: There's been a request also to Papua New Guinea. But I would stress that Australia has a security treaty with the Solomon Islands, which means that the personnel that are deployed there have the protections for their activity under that treaty. Now that is a unique treaty between us and the Solomon Islands. A request has also been made to Papua New Guinea, and I've had a discussion with Prime Minister Marape about that. Of course, this is a matter of real concern, particularly the other Melanesian countries within the region, and they are also concerned to ensure that we can return and calm the situation as quickly as possible and to ensure that the issues that are there can be peacefully addressed.

JOURNALIST: Are there considerations or planning being done to potentially send more assistance should it be required?

PRIME MINISTER: If that is required, then we will consider that further. We will have a better assessment of that in the morning once we have had our AFP personnel and and DFAT, I think tonight being able to be on the ground and make further assessments and what I discussed with Prime Minister Marape is that also would give us the opportunity to joint plan with them as to what role, if any, they might also wish to play.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: And the Police Commissioner Kershaw is, of course, in direct contact with Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangau in the planning for this deployment and we will take advice through that process, as you would expect, and also through the advice provided to us from the DFAT and other agency personnel in the Post in Honiara.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you pleased that the Solomon Islands, Solomon Islands is going to Australia first before any other countries to ask fo support? And what does that say about Australia's role in the region?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, two things. The first, first, in relation to am I pleased? This is why we have a treaty with the Solomon Islands. We have a treaty with the Solomon Islands because of the significant work that has been done by Australians to restore peace to the Solomon Islands through the RAMSI initiative. And I know many Australians who are involved in that would be concerned, having spent time there to ensure that they've had the opportunity for some time now to experience the peace that they worked with those in Solomon Islands to achieve. And so this treaty ensures that where there are issues and a request is made and they've come to us in that way, then we can respond. And when I was in the Solomon Islands, it was not long after there had been another incident. But we were so proud of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and I went there to congratulate them and thank them because they are able to deal with a situation of civil unrest not long before I'd been there. On this occasion, they have sought our support and on this occasion they turned to their family, and that's how I would describe our role in the Pacific. We're family and there's nothing closer than that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is there some irony, though, that you’re supporting a Prime Minister who has recently switched allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing?

PRIME MINISTER: This has nothing to do with that in terms of Australia's response. Australia's response is under the treaty that we have with the Solomon Islands, and that is with the people of the Solomon Islands. It is between two governments and it's there regardless of who is running either of those governments. A request has been made under that treaty and it is respected and we are responding to it. We are seeking to take no part in the internal issues of the Solomon Islands, but simply to ensure that any issues they have can be addressed in a calm and peaceful way.

JOURNALIST: How many Australians are over there, you said everyone was accounted for. How many Australians are we talking about?

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I will provide final numbers. The Post has obviously been endeavouring to make contact during the day today.

JOURNALIST: Just on the figures of the ADF personnel going over there. You've got the 23 that are helping that are going tonight and then 50 that are helping secure critical infrastructure. Are they going tonight as well or are they going to be there tomorrow?

PRIME MINISTER: 23 are leaving this evening and may well have had wheels up already by now. They were on standby over the course of this afternoon, while the NSC met and made our decision and confirmed that. And so they're moving. In terms of both the ADF detachment, which is coming out of Townsville and further AFP that will be deployed, as well as the patrol boat, which will be heading to the area. Those movements are all still to take place and we anticipate both, but in particular the ADF movement to take place tomorrow, and we would expect further AFP movements as well.

JOURNALIST: Could I ask about religious freedom...

PRIME MINISTER: Are there any other questions on the AFP and ADF deployment? No? Go ahead, Paul, oh sorry, on that issue.

JOURNALIST: Can I please ask what the DFAT personnel role there will be?

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Their role is to support the the existing presence at Post in Honiara and to work with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force as they normally would and with the AFP contingent, and to assist in whatever way they're able to.

PRIME MINISTER: Ok, Paul?

JOURNALIST: Before the last election, you promised Australians to protect both students and religious Australians from discrimination. Given that both have had to wait three years, why not do both together or one after the other, rather than waiting 12 months to protect?

PRIME MINISTER: We are waiting for the report from the Australian Law Reform Commission on the other matter, and my view on that hasn't changed. Gay students should not be expelled from religious schools and nor should gay teachers who have been employed at those schools be dismissed if if they are gay. That has always been my view, and this bill does nothing to enable such a dismissal. It has, it provides no powers for that, and there could be no suggestion it could because it just simply doesn't. That is dealt with under sex discrimination law. What I introduced today was about religious discrimination, and this was about ensuring that people hold religious beliefs or indeed choose not to hold religious beliefs that is considered a protected attribute. Like other things that are protected attributes under other discrimination law. This brings it into line. There is a, there's a gap and that needs to be fixed. Thanks very much, everyone.