AUSTRALIA WARNS AGAINST TRIMMING SOLOMONS FORCE

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By Evan Wasuka

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, May 22) – Australia warned yesterday that it won’t accept the Regional Assistance Mission being "sliced up" when its legislative framework is renewed in the Solomon Islands parliament.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer delivered the blunt warning in a television interview, after two days of talks that he and his New Zealand counterpart, Winston Peters, had with Solomon Islands leaders in Honiara.

Mr. Downer said the RAMSI partners did not want to see "that some bits are kept and some bits, which are seen to be inconvenient, are lost."

The Solomon Islands parliament is due to renew the legislation underpinning the RAMSI intervention by July 23.

Mr. Downer’s warning yesterday echoed things he and Mr. Peters said to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and other Solomon Island leaders over the past few days.

The two neighbors warned that while they welcome a review of RAMSI, they would not hesitate to withdraw the force if the changes sought altered the mission’s objectives.

Mr. Downer also spoke directly to the Solomon Islands public, in the Talking Truth radio programme, saying the future of RAMSI is now in the hands of the Solomon Islands legislators, who will review its Facilitation Act.

Mr. Downer also said there would be no point in RAMSI staying if the Government did not accept "the whole package."

The whole package, other than law and order, includes the restructure of the civil service, especially the finance ministry.

"The Solomon Islands Government wants to review RAMSI, that’s fine, but if at the end of the review, they want to impose a new system that won’t work, then there’s not much point in staying," Mr. Downer said. "We don’t want to prop up a bad situation."

Speaking on the ABC’s Insider programme yesterday, Mr. Downer added: "...I have made it clear to the Solomon Islands Government that the full integrity of RAMSI needs to remain if it’s to be successful."

The Sogavare Government has said it wanted more control of government finances saying the control of finance and the police by a foreign force was not in the best interest of Solomon Islanders.

However, Mr. Downer said RAMSI people are here to help restore the financial integrity of Solomon Islands and the Solomon Islands Government.

"There are five who are working in in-line positions in the finance ministry - they’re people from our (Australia’s) Finance Department and Treasury - and then there are quite a few - 18, 19 or so advisers in the finance area, as well as people working in the Economic Recovery Unit.

"And I think that some people in the Solomon Islands Government have had the idea that these people are a bit inconvenient in the Finance Ministry and I have the idea that making the finances work properly in addressing ‘full-on’ the issue of corruption is going to be central to getting Solomon Islands back on its feet again," he said.

In Honiara, Mr. Downer said Australia, as the largest investor in RAMSI does not get any economic gains by being in the Solomon Islands.

What we’re interested in is stability and raising living standards, he said.

Mr. Downer said a vital part of RAMSI’s programme was to ensure that money collected by the Government in the form of taxes was spent properly.

"We hope that the new Government would still want that package."

He said RAMSI’s assistance to the finance ministry was aimed at ensuring that taxes collected were used to help the common people.

"Not to assist the elite in society," he said.

We have to ensure that the (tax) money is effectively collected and is managed properly, said Mr. Downer.

Mr. Peters also said last week that his country, too, would not support any changes to RAMSI that would alter the purpose of the body.

"We will be fair to everybody’s view but if it is stripped off its capacity then we could not justify it being here."

He said RAMSI could only remain if its original purpose was maintained and it was respected for that.

But Mr. Downer added an assurance.

"We don’t want to leave," he said.

He said RAMSI’s departure could see a decline in living standards and a breakdown in security.

May 22, 2006

Solomon Star: www.solomonstarnews.com

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