Robert Sisilo stands outside the Solomon Islands High Commission in Canberra.
Robert Sisilo stands outside the Solomon Islands High Commission in Canberra.
7 min read

Solomon Islands concerned Australia is turning away from the Pacific to meet demand for agricultural workers

In an exclusive television interview with SBS News, Solomon Islands' top diplomat in Australia raised concerns a new agriculture visa could undermine the current agreement with Pacific nations.

Published 4 May 2022 at 11:13am, updated 4 May 2022 at 12:21pm
By Lucy Murray
Source: SBS News
Solomon Islands' top diplomat in Australia has told SBS News he is concerned a new agriculture visa, designed to bring workers from southeast Asia to regional Australia, could undermine the current agreement with Pacific nations.

High Commissioner Robert Sisilo told SBS News this is the number one concern for his country when it comes to the relationship with Australia.

"Our concern is that it [the new agriculture visa] would undermine the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme ... to the extent that our numbers coming here may be reduced," he said.

Australia's relationship with Solomon Islands is in the spotlight after the Pacific nation turned to China to fulfil its security needs.

that could see Chinese police deployed, to quell future protests. A move heavily criticised by Australia.
The High Commissioner told SBS News if Australia wants to restore relations it could start by scrapping the proposed visa arrangement.

The Australian Agriculture Visa (AAV) is currently in development and would see seasonal farm workers hired from southeast Asia.

Australia has signed a and is in discussions with India.

These dealings have frustrated Solomon Islands' leaders, as Mr Sisilo said there is huge demand in his country to fill the positions in Australia.

"I wouldn't say that it angered our leaders, but it's just that we are a bit concerned and we did convey that," he said.
“If the attention is now on recruiting from mainly Asian countries that might undermine, or reduce our numbers.

"The demand is so huge, we could supply the labour force.” 

The existing enables Australian regional, rural and agriculture businesses to hire workers from nine Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste for up to four years.
I wouldn't say that it angered our leaders, but it's just that we are a bit concerned and we did convey that.
Robert Sisilo
Solomon Islands' participation in the program has risen from about 190 people in 2019 to 3,000 workers this year, something Mr Sisilo said has "been very, very useful to the economy”.

"In terms of remittances, they are sending back a lot to people at home."

The High Commissioner was in hotel quarantine last year when riots broke out in Honiara. He watched from his window as whole suburbs were burnt to the ground.
This photo shows aftermath of a looted street in Honiara's Chinatown
Honiara's Chinatown was razed by fire when riots broke out in November 2021. Source: AP
He blames the protests on young people frustrated at ongoing unemployment, which is why he said the program with Australia is so essential and should be expanded.

"In the Solomon Islands ... thousands are looking for jobs every year, as they finish school, but there are very few jobs around. This is where the Australian Pacific Labour Scheme has been very useful in creating jobs.”

'Plenty of work to go around': Agriculture Minister dismisses concerns, says farmers are in need of skilled workers

The Morrison government's Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia David Littleproud told SBS News the new visa is needed to bring in more experienced workers.

Mr Littleproud said the lack of skilled workers is the number one constraint on Australia’s agriculture industry.

“We’re proud of the fact we have been able to bring Pacific workers to Australian farms and they have done an outstanding job, but the ag visa goes to a skilled and semi-skilled basis,” he said.

“That has been the challenge that is missing, and the biggest constraint in Australian agriculture.”

“That investment in those Pacific workers is happening, upskilling them, but that takes time.”
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. Source: AAP
The Maranoa MP denied the new visa would undermine the number of position open to Pacific workers, but admitted it will be up to farmers and business owners to determine who they hire.

“I don’t accept that, we continue to make sure Pacific workers on an unskilled basis will continue to come and play a pivotal role and we will continue to invest in tha t… there is plenty of work to go around.” he said.

“It is demand driven and we are allowing farmers to make that determination, based on the skill set required. If it’s unskilled, then obviously the Pacific schemes are there and farmers are able to accelerate that as they need. If it is on a skilled and semi-skilled that is where the limitation has been, and that what the ag visa and bringing in those workers [from Asia] in will enhance.”

“We are going to continue to invest in the Pacific, but we need to make sure we are also a part of the Pacific and southeast Asian family in assuring there is stability and security, across the entire region. And that’s what we are trying to do with balance.”

Labor has promised to scrap the agriculture visa if it wins the election. It will also introduce a new Pacific Engagement Visa that will pave the way for 3,000 workers and their families to become Australian Permanent Residents per year.

China deal received mixed reaction in Solomon Islands

When news broke of the security pact between Solomon Islands and China, opposition members of parliament were outspoken against it.

High Commissioner Robert Sisilo admitted the reaction to the deal has been mixed in his country, but played down concerns it has caused division.

"Viewed locally, it is mixed. I have been watching very closely the Facebook commentary and it is a bit mixed," he told SBS News.
A graphic featuring China president Xi Jin Ping and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare
A new security deal between China and Solomon Islands has been the subject of heated debate. Source: SBS News
"Mixed debate happens everywhere, and in fact it is good, it's lively, it's healthy for the country. It allows room for good discussion," he said.

"But in terms of if it has divided the country, I don't think we have reached that stage yet. "

While democratic debate is normal on policy, it is rare to see a government divided on defence and foreign policy.

Mr Sisilo suggested that the debate between Australia and China is interfering in Solomon Islands' domestic politics.

"Maybe because of China, or maybe it has to do with the Australian media, trying to drive a wedge between people in the Solomons about the whole issue about having an agreement with China."

"We are worried, because we have two huge countries and we don't want to be trapped between them and be sandwiched.

"We would rather they worked very closely together. The Pacific Ocean is huge. I am sure there is enough space for both of them."
But, when pushed on what the China deal means in real terms Mr Sisilo agreed with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, that Australia remains Solomon Islands' preferred security partner.

"Australia is our partner of choice, so surely we go for Australia first."

The High Commissioner said the details of the security pact with China will be made public soon.

He could not provide an exact date, but said it was likely days, not weeks, away.