‘Inappropriate’ says Solomon Islands about Australian offer to fund election
- Pacific nation’s government accused Australia of trying ‘to influence how Members of Parliament will vote’ on a bill that would delay national polls by 7 months
- In April, PM Manasseh Sogavare signed a landmark security pact with Beijing, sparking intense diplomatic jostling between China, the US and its allies
Solomon Islands on Tuesday said an Australian offer to fund its next election was “inappropriate”, dismissing Canberra’s latest effort to strengthen ties with the Pacific nation as it increasingly courts Beijing.
In a statement, the Solomons government accused Australia of trying “to influence how Members of Parliament will vote” on an upcoming bill that would delay national polls by seven months.
It comes after Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a landmark security pact with Beijing in April, sparking intense diplomatic jostling between China, the United States and its allies including Australia.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong revealed the funding offer during an interview with ABC radio on Tuesday morning.
With the vote on an election delay due as early as Thursday, the Solomons government took umbrage at the timing, saying it “was in the process of replying when the Australian Foreign Minister made an announcement to the Australian media”.
Sogavare has argued the Pacific nation must delay the poll until after it hosts the 2023 Pacific Games because of high costs. But critics have accused him of trying to “bulldoze” democracy by rushing the bill through parliament.
Australia’s government has attempted in recent months to reset its relationship with Sogavare, who has grown close to Beijing since violent riots against his leadership broke out in the capital of Honiara last year.
The Solomons government said it received the offer from Wong on September 1 and would formally respond after the election bill was dealt with.
While the amount offered by Australia was not revealed, Sogavare’s secretary Jimmie Rogers previously told the Solomons state broadcaster that the election would cost more than US$49 million.
In her Tuesday interview, Wong denied Australia’s offer had come in response to calls for support from the Solomon Islands opposition. “(It) reflects our long-standing and historical commitment to supporting democracy and democratic processes in Solomon Islands,” she said.
The bill to delay the election was “domestically controversial”, Wong added, “(but) that’s ultimately a matter for their parliament to resolve”.
She sought to tamp down suggestions the funding was unusual, citing Australian support for recent elections in Papua New Guinea.
The Australian government last week updated its travel advice for Solomon Islands, warning citizens to exercise “a high degree of caution due to the possibility of further civil unrest” ahead of the vote on the election delay.
Solomon Islands MP John Maneniaru said on Tuesday that he was “very disheartened” with a decision by Sogavare to fast track the election bill, skipping the scrutiny of his Bills and Legislation Committee.
“This is for me a sad moment indeed. And for our democracy”, he said. “A deliberate decision was made to bulldoze into our parliament and democracy”.
Sogavare, a four-time prime minister, is expected to visit Australia soon, with discussions ongoing about the timing.
He recently accused Western media organisations in the Solomons of “spreading anti-China sentiment”.
Sogavare’s office threatened to ban or deport reporters for “disrespectful and demeaning” coverage, and said some foreign media were trying to “engineer regime change”.