This is the text of my address to Deakin University's annual forum: ‘Yes we’re still a monarchy but it’s not my fault’
The people of Burma – or some of them - went to the polls on Saturday in what was that countries first election process in 20 years. This process was so restricted and stage managed and the substance of the result know as early as three days before the event that even the terms ‘poll’ and ‘election’ have to be used in a heavily qualified sense. It was, in reality, just the Burmese junta’s mechanism for shifting away from an overt military dictatorship to a slightly more covert form – dictatorship without so many uniforms.
For a political leader who honestly but unwisely admitted that foreign policy is not her passion, Julia Gillard is now learning that how she conducts herself on the world – or regional – stage – is central to her overall performance as a prime minister. How Australia’s relationship is conducted with Indonesia is not just important to Australia’s external concerns, but directly impacts on domestic political issues.
Front and centre of Ms Gillard’s discussions with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was, unsurprisingly, Indonesia’s potential role in a regional refugee processing centre. Notice the subtle name change? We may be seeing a move away from an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor to something located elsewhere, if not more widely dispersed.
It is a truism that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is one of its most important. Yet the bilateral relationship has often been troubled, sometimes deeply so, and may become so again.
The current success of the bilateral relationship can be attributed almost entirely to Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Until his presidency, Australia only kept good relations with previous presidents by bowing to Indonesia’s wishes.
With Yudhoyono, however, Australia found a genuine democrat and reformer with whom it had much in common, confirming that previous troubles reflected political rather than claimed cultural differences. However, Yudhoyono is now into his second and final term as president and his reformist agenda has become stalled by an unfriendly legislature and vested institutional interests.
As the new consolation prize Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd’s first job will be to try to implement the government’s ‘East Timor solution’ for asylum seekers. The issue whether this policy has any chance of success.
The first hurdle to be overcome was the unanimous vote by East Timor’s parliament, if with an incomplete sitting of members, opposing the idea. As a wealthy developed country, many East Timorese ask, why does Australia want to off-load its problems onto its impoverished neighbour? Why does Australia not properly shoulder its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention?
My son turned 18 recently, so he was eligible to vote for the first time. Although it is tempting to encourage one’s children to vote as one does, I have hoped he will vote not at my suggestion but as a matter of personal conscience. Yesterday, before he went to the polling booths, I offered him some advice.
Despite the way in which Australian election campaigns are conducted, the most recent being the worst example, I asked my son to consider the ‘Four Ps’; principle, policy, party and personality, in that order. It would be reasonable to argue that the Australian election process, which is now in mopping up stages, was constructed in the opposite order. So, why my advice?
As the policy-lite federal election runs down to the finish line, one issue widely regarded as just so much debate-neutralising fluff – locating an asylum seeker processing facility in East Timor – is now looking a lot more substantial than initially understood. Although talks about establishing a facility in East Timor are on hold due to the government’s caretaker mode, the issue is now being taken very seriously and considerably more favorably within East Timor itself.
The leaking of more than 91,000 US military intelligence files on the war in Afghanistan via the whistleblower website Wikileaks has, in all, told us some of what was known, much of what was suspected and all of which was feared by citizens of the states that are contributing to the war.
What might have been hoped for in yesterday’s newspapers was at least an outline of the leaks’ key findings, as reported internationally. This is of particular relevance given the Australia is a party to the war and sustains – and causes -- casualties.
Some of the key elements of the Afghanistan Wikileaks include that, at more than 91,000 documents, it vastly overshadows the 1971 Pentagon papers (a little over 4000 documents) and provides a near complete synopsis of how the war has been conducted between 2004 and the end of last year.
The vote by East Timor’s parliament yesterday to oppose the establishment of an Australian off-shore asylum seeker processing centre should not have come as a surprise. Parliamentarians from the government and opposition have been saying they were against the idea since it was announced last week.
The Australian government has certainly acted unperturbed by the vote, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying the vote from the parliament did not necessarily reflect the position of the government. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has similarly said that the process is "going forward".