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HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, Sept. 18) – Unions in the Solomon Islands have urged Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to reverse his decision to expel Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole.

Mr Cole was due to leave the country sometimes this week after the Government declared his persona non grata.

But the Solomon Islands Council of Trade Union (SICTU) yesterday urged Mr Sogavare to reverse his decision, describing the action as " senseless, childish, and irresponsible".

SICTU’s call came after its full meeting at the weekend, convened to discuss the prime minister’s action, which had sparked a major diplomatic row between Honiara and Canberra.

SICTU, which represents both public and private sector unions, warned that the expulsion of Mr Cole would seriously damage the interest of the nation.

"In declaring the head of Australia’s High Commission persona non grata, Mr Sogavare has allowed his personal agenda to interfere with his sacred duty to protect and preserve the nation’s interests," SICTU General Secretary Tony Kagovai said yesterday.

Mr Kagovai said SICTU wants the Prime Minister to revoke his decision for the sake of Solomon Islands and its people.

"Throwing out the Australian high commissioner, at a time when Australia is leading the effort to rebuild our nation under RAMSI is not only senseless, childish and irresponsible it is an insult to the generosity of the Government and people of Australia. We should not forget that most of the funding for RAMSI and the rebuilding of Solomon Islands is coming out of the pocket of Australian tax payers. Kicking out their high Commissioner without even explaining why, is a slap in the face of ordinary Australian’s generous efforts towards our troubled nation. It is not the action of a responsible leader," a statement issued by SICTU said.

Prime Minister Sogavare declared Mr Cole persona non grata last Tuesday after accusing him of interfering into the Government’s efforts to get the Commission of Inquiry going.

The Australia Government retaliated by cancelling multi-entry visas to Solomon Island politicians.

Mr Kagovai said SICTU plans to call a meeting this week with other NGOS and civil society groups in order to work out what actions they could jointly take to address the diplomatic crisis.

SICTU also called on both the Solomon Islands and the Australian governments to return the situation to the "status quo" by withdrawing both their actions and address their differences through round table discussions.

Mr Kagovai said that SICTU and its affiliates represented the workers in this country, and had witnessed the suffering of the workers and their families during the unprecedented hardships caused by the tensions and breakdown of law and order just a few years ago.

"No one in this country wants to go back to those days, and that is why no one expects the prime minister to jeopardise all the progress we have made since then."

He said at that time SICTU had joined other NGOs and Civil Society Groups to campaign for foreign assistance from overseas partners.

"It was due in part to these efforts that RAMSI became a reality and Australia has been the biggest contributor to RAMSI on top and above its normal bilateral aid to Solomon Islands.

"Since its arrival in July of 2003, RAMSI not only returned the law and order into normalcy, but RAMSI has also helped to provide opportunities for economic recovery and growth, which in turn will create increased employment opportunities for the many suffering workers and to support their families, particularly in Honiara," Mr Kagovai said.

He said these opportunities can only be created at a level that can make an impact through RAMSI and what Prime Minister Sogavare has done is going to destroy these opportunities.

"Foreign investors, even tourists will now hesitate to visit our shores," Mr Kagovai said.

"We may never know how many lost opportunities were created by this senseless and selfish decision of the prime minister.

"Poverty in Solomon Islands particularly in the urban areas such as Honiara is a reality and the life of workers and their families in Honiara is extremely hard," he added.

Mr Kagovai said there were more pressing issues for workers in the country that the Government needs to address immediately.

These included the issue of the many illegal Asians who have been allowed by the Government to take up the jobs of Solomon Islanders.

"SICTU believes there are hundreds of illegal Asians operating in the country including Ramon Quitales, who is the Secretary General of the Prime Minister’s Socred Party.

"We have now seen that Mr Sogavare has a double standard when it comes to his personal political interests and those of the nation," Mr Kagovai said.

"While the prime minister is tolerating these illegal Asians who are causing real hardships for Solomon Islands workers and their families, he has chosen to take a totally disproportionate action in declaring the Australian High Commissioner to Solomon Islands persona non grata, a matter that can be best dealt with through normal diplomatic channels."

September 19, 2006

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