Marise Payne holds first meeting with Solomon Islands counterpart since China security pact

A meeting between Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, and her Solomons Islands counterpart for the first time since a security pact with China was signed overshadowed campaign announcements on Saturday.

On day 27 of the campaign, and just two weeks out from the federal election, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was campaigning in Perth, while the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was in Tasmania.

Morrison said the meeting between Payne and Jeremiah Manele in Brisbane reinforced Australia’s role in the region.

“It also reassured, once again, that the Solomon Islands are not considering or would not support the establishment of a naval presence,” he told reporters in Perth.

“There was the opportunity for a meeting to take place here, and that was a sensible opportunity to take up.”

But the prime minister did not comment on why it took so long for the meeting to take place following news of the security pact.

Payne confirmed the meeting occurred on Friday as Manele travelled through Brisbane, where she expressed concern about the lack of transparency around the pact.

“Australia has been consistent and clear in stating our respect for Solomon Islands’ sovereign decision-making,” she said.

“We agreed that Australia remains the Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice.”

Payne said she had been reassured the Pacific nation would not house a foreign military base.

The prime minister declined to say whether New Zealand should have a bigger effort in the Pacific to counter Chinese aggression.

“[Prime minister Jacinda Ardern] shares the same passion for the Pacific region,” Morrison said. “We’ve worked closely to ensure that [the Pacific step up] harmonise together.”

Australia’s trade minister, Dan Tehan, said he was told it had been a “very productive conversation”.

He told the ABC on Saturday the pair had also discussed how the Morrison government needed to keep working at the relationship.

“What we want to do is to be making sure that we’re presenting a very strong case as to why it is incredibly important that we don’t see militarisation of the Pacific Islands,” Tehan said.

Albanese said it was good Payne and Manele had met.

“It’s about time,” he said.

Labor has attacked the Morrison government’s handling of ties with Solomon Islands, with the deputy leader, Richard Marles, saying on Friday that repairing the relationship with the nation would be a priority for his party.

“It’s really important, obviously, that Australia presents itself as wanting to help the people of the Pacific in the challenges that they face,” he said.

Morrison campaigned in the WA seats of Hasluck, Pearce and Cowan on Saturday, announcing a $20m tourism package for wineries, distilleries and breweries.

The plan would see $15m for specialist drink-makers with $100,000 grants to build or upgrade on-site facilities such as restaurants and tour areas.

A further $5m would go to tourism and local governments.

Albanese, meanwhile, was campaigning in the Tasmanian seat of Bass, where he told a Labor rally in Launceston the government had been in power for almost a decade, and people had Morrison, and his claim he doesn’t think about his legacy, “worked out”.

“Why would you do this job if you don’t want to leave a legacy and change Australia for the better?” Albanese said.

“Legacies inspire us to reach for even greater heights. To reach for our days that I know can be ahead of us.”

Labor announced $26m in funding for manufacturing jobs at the rally, and $15bn worth of equity and finance available for local businesses through Labor’s National Reconstruction Fund.

“[These are] commitments consistent with the need to have a future made right here in Australia,” Albanese said.

“Coming out of Covid, Australia needs to learn the lessons of the pandemic. We need to stand on our own two feet.”

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