There are a number of ways to interpret Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s failure to raise his asylum seeker ‘tow back’ proposal in his meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but none of them are positive. In short, the ‘town back’ proposal was – and in so far as it continues to be defended by Opposition speakers – remains a policy disaster.
In a political contest increasingly characterised by who has the metaphorically hairiest chest, ‘Tow Back Tony’ has been a tough-guy par excellence. Not only had Mr Abbott taken the hardest line on asylum seekers, he went that one step further by not just saying that a government under his leadership would implement asylum seeker deterrent policies but it would physically take asylum seeker boats back to the territorial waters they came from.
For long-term Burma watchers, it has been easy to regard that country’s recent political changes as window dressing by an authoritarian regime hoping to attract investment without actually giving up power. There is no doubt, too, that the 2010 elections remained a very long way from being free and fair.
But the bi-elections in April this year did appear to offer a glimpse of a genuine reform process, with opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates winning 43 of the 44 seats contested. Burma’s President Thein Sein has since been feted around the world as a reformer, as has NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of hoped-for political change.
Since April, there have been numerous changes in Burma’s political and military leadership. To date, these changes have almost all seen the promotion of reformist officers or former officers and the side-lining of the government’s anti-reform faction.
The peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed on Sunday has, it seems, brought to an end four decades of a bloody and destructive war in the southern Philippines that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives. Assuming the peace agreement holds, it will create an autonomous Islamic homeland for the Philippines’ ‘Bangsamoro’ people and bring much needed stability to an historically deeply troubled region. The peace agreement recognises the long-standing military stalemate between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the MILF. A compromise arrangement has long been recognised by the MILF and at least some in the government as the only practical means to ending the conflict.
At a time of bipartisan support for renewing the Pacific Solution, it is deeply disturbing to see the asylum seeker issue taking a turn for the more extreme. In a world of dog-whistle politics, it appears that further punishing victims is acceptable if it can score domestic political points.
Despite the opposition’s success in the government adopting its Pacific Solution, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop’s call to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without processing their claims reduces policy debate to moral abandonment. Backing her, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has displayed either ignorance or denial of the facts on the ground in Sri Lanka and Australia’s legal obligations.
From a sleepy backwater, the South Pacific has been catapulted into the diplomatic limelight, with the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands playing host not just to Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, but to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a large delegation from China. All of a sudden, the Pacific island states – a mere scattering of specks in a vast blue ocean – are at centre stage.
It seems that no matter how cordial Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is or how much it is desired to be so, perennial issues continue that call aspects of that relationship into question. Critically, the gap between how Australia official engages with Indonesia and how that engagement is more widely viewed within Australia continues to test the relationship.
When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, part of its justification was that the then ruling Fretilin intended to allow the country to become a regional base for China. Fretilin had recently assumed power, having defeated the conservative UDT’s attempted coup in August of that year. But Fretilin’s victory was viewed in Indonesia as establishing a communist base in the middle of its archipelago at a time when the Cold War was running hot and communism in the region seemed in the ascendency. At that time, Indonesia was vehemently anti-communist, having destroyed its own communist party less than a decade before and broken off diplomatic relations with China as part of the purge. The idea of China having a base, or at least a friendly country, in its midst was intolerable to Indonesia’s generals. Whether or not Fretilin intended to establish close relations with China is a moot point.
When Timor-Leste's new Cabinet was announced, there was a flurry of critical comment within Timor-Leste, about both the size and composition of the ministry. Some critics were unhappy that an expanded ministry would cost more and potentially lead to more corruption while others railed against Timor-Leste becoming an ‘oligarchy’ rather than a democracy.
The positive aspect of this commentary is that is shows that Timor-Leste is a plural political society expressing a range of political views. It is also important to note that while some of the commentary reflected partisan political positions, much of it also reflected a genuine concern over the size and capacity of the government.
The new ministry, with 17 ministers, is not especially large by any standard and is much smaller than many of other countries. The criticism therefore reflects on the inclusion of vice-ministers and secretaries of state, who exercise quasi-ministerial functions.
In a country in which there are no public opinion surveys and in which the still developing media could not be said to reflect, much less shape, the views of most people, trying to understand why the people of Timor-Leste vote as they do was not an exact science. Such judgments that could be made were only on the basis of anecdotal evidence set against what is known about Timor-Leste’s history and some conventional theories about politics.
Australia’s rebuilding of diplomatic ties with Fiji has taken some observers by surprise, given the strength of opposition to Fiji’s 2006 military coup. Australia has been torn between principle and real politik since its high commissioner, James, Battley, was ordered out of Fiji in 2009, followed by acting high commissioner Sarah Roberts in 2010. The question now is whether Australia has moved too quickly to still have any influence in Fiji’s proposed return to democratisation.
After cancelling the country’s 2009 elections, Fiji has recently established a voter roll, which indicates that the country could be preparing for elections, nominally scheduled for 2014. Fiji has not enjoyed freedom of speech or a free media since the 2006 coup nor does it allow freedom of assembly. Ousted prime minister Laisenia Qarase, whom Bainimarana installed after the 2000 coup, has just been convicted of abuse of office in a long-running corruption case.