The Labor government decided to publicly criticize the issues with Australian-made patrol boats dispatched to the Pacific despite warnings from officials not to. According to documents obtained by The Guardian newspaper, the Department of Defence cautioned the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles, not to disclose the matter. The document read, “Proactive media on the current Guardian-class patrol boat exhaust cracking issue is likely to damage relationships with Pacific Partners and is not recommended by Defence. Media attention may create unwanted political and media pressure for Pacific Partners, which may then be exploited by criminal networks or malign actors.” The Pacific Islands are a hub for drug trafficking.
Despite the advice from the Defence Department, Minister Marles gave the go-ahead for a statement to be published on the matter. On July 1, 2022, the Defence Department revealed several issues in the Australian-built patrol boat, discovered over the past 16 months. In February 2022, cracks were found in the couplings between the engine and gearbox. In May, problems with the ventilation system in sick bays and the exhaust system, which saw carbon monoxide being pumped into certain compartments, were detected.
At the time, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said the government was committed to working through all the challenges to ensure the boats were safe and operational. He stated, “We understand how important these vessels are for Australia and our partners in the Pacific. The Guardian patrol boats play a critical role in maritime surveillance activities as well as detecting and deterring illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” The Australian government has donated 15 boats to Pacific Island governments as part of its engagement strategy in competition with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
However, efforts to win over the Solomon Islands appear to be on the ropes after the most-populous province, Malaita, pledged to end the Auki Communique, a bulwark against Beijing’s influence. New Malaita Province Premier Martin Fini is considering removing the document after his government took power from former premier—and staunch critic of Beijing—Daniel Suidani, who was swept from office in a contentious no-confidence vote. A government insider told the Solomon Star, a pro-national government newspaper, in an interview on February 17, “Yes, the removal of the Auki Communique is on the agenda. That document serves no useful purpose except to lock up Malaita and its resources from beneficial economic development through investment. We will shelve it. This will signal that Malaita will be open to investors from everywhere. The people of Malaita need development, and as their representative government, we will facilitate it.”