- Solomon Islands
Solomon Islanders entered 2007 with expectations that the Manasseh Sogavare–led Grand Coalition for Change government would make positive changes, especially in the delivery of social services. These expectations were created partly by Sogavare government’s announcement of its Bottom Up Approach to development, which promised to develop rural areas where a majority of Solomon Islanders live. The Bottom Up Approach was expected to bring fundamental changes in the development of the country after decades of dismal performance since independence.
The year began with a nagging strain on diplomatic relations with Australia. The political drama began when twelve Solomon Islands police officers were sent to Taiwan for special security training involving firearms and self-defense. Although firearms-related training was denied by Taiwan’s vice foreign minister who visited Solomon Islands in February, the prime minister continued to stress the need to rearm the Personal Protection Unit, which normally provides security to government ministers and dignitaries. Widespread national and international criticism over the rearmament proposal followed its announcement. Notably, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer took the unusual step of writing directly to the people of Solomon Islands to express his grave concern about the state of the relationship with Australia. In his “Letter to the People of Solomon Islands,” Downer said: “Australians and your regional neighbors who make up ramsi [Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands] remain committed to working with you to prevent a return to these bad old days; we remain committed to keeping ramsi in place, so that Solomon Islands can continue to move forward.” He added that “sadly there seems to be a deliberate push to undermine ramsi, to tarnish its reputation, and make it hard for it to continue its work” (Solomon Star News, 9 Feb 2007). Prime Minister Sogavare responded by accusing Downer of acting undiplomatically, pushed to establish a time frame for ramsi to leave, and canceled two appointments for the designated Australian High Commissioner to Solomon Islands, Peter Hooton, to [End Page 469] present his letter of introduction. Hooton was eventually able to present his credentials, and Sogavare withdrew the rearmament plan.
As this diplomatic row continued, four government members of Parliament crossed the floor and joined the opposition group just before Parliament convened for its first session of the year. The group consisted of former Prime Ministers Billy Hilly and Bartholomew Ulufa‘alu, Deputy Prime Minister Job Dudley Tausinga, and mp Trevor Olovae. The no-confidence motion was the second in ten months. However, it was disqualified by the Speaker of Parliament on the grounds that it did not meet the seven days notice required by parliamentary standing orders. The Speaker would only allow the motion to be tabled if the Opposition could demonstrate the numbers to debate the motion.
Many citizens, however, hoped that the prolonged diplomatic row with Australia could be resolved because it had brought so much negative publicity, and to allow the government to concentrate on critical issues of national importance. These included opening major resource development industries, securing opportunities for temporary labor markets overseas, and creating a political and economic environment conducive to promoting foreign investment and creating more jobs.
There were concerns that despite its promises of a Bottom Up Approach to development, the Sogavare-led government had not put in place a plan that outlined what needed to be done and how it would be implemented. Furthermore, Solomon Islands continued to depend on foreign aid. For instance, the 2005 budget showed that donors funded 55 percent of the recurrent budget and 90 percent of the development budget. In 2006, donors funded 86 percent of the development budget. Heavy reliance on donors highlighted the need for the Solomon Islands government to take the lead in determining its national priorities in consultation with other stakeholders, and in translating these priorities into national development strategies.
As if the country’s political dramas were not enough, on 2 April an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale shook the country, causing a tsunami that destroyed villages in parts of the Western and Choiseul provinces. At least fifty-two people were killed, and approximately 36,000 people left homeless. Western and Choiseul provinces...