Senate debates

Monday, 24 November 2014


Solomon Islands: General Election

9:50 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on last week's general election, of 19 November, in the Solomon Islands. Last night I returned from Honiara, where I was privileged to support democracy in the Solomon Islands as a member of the Commonwealth Observers Group. Commonwealth members, along with the Pacific Islands Forum, were invited by the Solomon Islands government as official election observers. This was the Solomon Islands' seventh election since independence and third since the end of 'the troubles' and the commencement of the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands, or RAMSI. This unique regional partnership has indeed Helpem Fren.

Commonwealth Observer Group teams were deployed across five provinces, covering the majority of the 50 seats, as part of a seven-day mission. This included Western Province, where I was located, Isabel, Central Province, Malaita, Guadalcanal and Honiara City itself. International observers received a warm and typically friendly Islander reception right throughout the mission, and we had the privilege of engaging freely and frankly with Solomon Islanders from all walks of life.

Having worked in Melanesia for the past few years on several democracy-strengthening programs, I was thrilled with what I saw, what I heard and what I experienced throughout the mission. There was general consensus amongst international observers that the election was conducted in a peaceful fashion and voters appeared able to cast their votes freely on election day. The people of the Solomon Islands are to be congratulated for turning out in force to exercise their right to vote and for taking up the opportunity to play their part in determining the future of their nation with such enthusiasm.

I was present at the commencement of RAMSI in the Solomon Islands back in 2003, and I witnessed firsthand a country divided and severely degraded by 'the troubles', but I am delighted to report to the Senate that the Solomon Islands today is a very different place to the country that I visited over a decade ago. It was absolutely wonderful to witness people there participating peacefully, enthusiastically and freely in these elections.

The outcomes for all 50 seats have this evening been finalised, and I understand that in the new parliament there will be 32 independents and 18 members of five separate parties. Once the official results are declared by the Governor-General, negotiations will commence between all newly elected members to form a new government and appoint a new Prime Minister. I am optimistic that, while robust, the discussions and negotiations will be conducted by the newly elected representatives as peacefully and purposefully as the ballot was last week.

In my experience, postconflict democracies typically take decades to establish or to rebuild civil society and the supporting institutions that are required for a stable and healthy democracy. The Solomon Islands have come a long way in the last decade, and, with the assistance of their regional RAMSI partners, they are making significant progress. However, the country still faces very significant challenges on many fronts, and they have a very long journey ahead of them—one that I believe will require ongoing but changing and evolving support from their regional partners and, in particular, from Australia. I will address Australia's involvement, through RAMSI, in this process in a subsequent speech to this place.

Being based in Gizo in the Western Province, travelling between booths on banana boats and almost needing the emergency beacon that was provided to me by the high commission, I witnessed firsthand the significant logistical challenges faced by the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission in organising and delivering election materials to all polling stations. The Solomon Islands Electoral Commission is to be commended for preparing the country's 2014 elections so effectively, especially in the light of significant resource constraints.

The polling officials that I observed displayed professionalism and integrity, and they ensured that the voting process on the day was well organised. I observed them working very hard to make sure that voters were able to cast their votes in a transparent, very orderly and peaceful manner. Given my own recent experiences with our own electoral commission here in Australia, I also paid particularly close attention to the counting of the ballots and the chain-of-custody procedures, which, I am very happy to report, were also equally robust.

Gizo and its surroundings are a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world, and are also the location of Prime Minister Lilo's own seat. Therefore, I had the opportunity to very closely observe preparations and the conduct of the ballot in his seat, across 12 polling booths in three islands. I witnessed the count, but I also witnessed their methods of reconciling and securing the ballot papers and all of the associated paperwork. I also observed the very long and very meticulous 12-hour count of the vote, and I was genuinely impressed by the rigour of the process adopted by the polling officials. In this particular seat, I concluded that the will of the electorate was well and truly reflected in the declared outcome. I note that the Prime Minister, who was not successful in getting re-elected, has also accepted that the result was the will of his electorate. The new biometric voter registration process clearly raised confidence in the integrity of the roll itself. I commend the electoral commission, and I was, again, impressed with this process.

Very significantly, I also witnessed the important role played by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, which was very ably but very quietly supported by the international Participating Police Force. I was also, as I think our group was, very impressed with the security arrangements that were put in place for the election, including a week-long alcohol ban. The highly visible, but not intrusive, nature of the RSIPF during polling day and the ongoing count really gave people the confidence to fully exercise their democratic rights on the day. We were also very impressed by community leaders, who were encouraging voters to engage in a peaceful process and not to be persuaded by any offers of buying votes or corruption.

Sadly, however, only 26 of 447 candidates were women and no women were successful in that election. They now have no women in their parliament. Like the group, I was deeply disappointed that—despite the passage of the recent Political Parties Integrity Act and the Solomon Islands' ratification of international agreements encouraging greater participation of women in the electoral process—there remain significant cultural and institutional impediments to women successfully standing for election.

All 15 members of RAMSI, and particularly the thousands of Australian men and women who have supported RAMSI and other bilateral support programs over the last eleven years, should be extremely proud of their efforts and their contributions to this successful result. I believe that we have indeed worked together to 'helpem fren'. My comments, however, in no way downplay the significant challenges that still face the Solomon Islands, but again tonight is not the time for that. I will address those in later speeches.

Finally, my sincere thanks to the Commonwealth Secretary-General for affording me this privilege and to the wonderful Commonwealth Secretariat team for their professional, friendly and very helpful support throughout the process. I would also like to thank our Australian high commissioner Andrew Byrne and his staff for their timely and professional in-country support and, as I said, particularly for the emergency beacon.

I conclude tonight with a message to all of our friends in Solomon Islands: me gat plenti hammamas tudei long kry out to all man na Mari na pikinini bilong Solomon islaus. Me pella sendum kongratulations long yu altogether long disela peaceful election bilong u pella. De fella election process bilong yu, emi outstanding.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Reynolds. I wish I could respond appropriately, but I cannot.