The Australian government’s approaches on asylum seekers, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq are debacles that reflect an inability to break with Howard-era approaches to foreign policy. Trying to turn the Howard-era foreign policy sow’s ear into a Rudd government silk purse is doomed to policy failure.
What does work, and could have reasonably been expected from the Rudd Government, is starting from a clean slate. Going back to Labor Party policy and what is in Australia’s long-term best interest would have produced, and could still produce, some very different results.
On asylum seekers, the numbers coming to Australia are miniscule compared to other signatories to the Refugee Convention. Rather than pander to the artificial panic about Australia being swamped, the government should have taken, and can still take a practical and morally defensible leadership role.
When the Rudd Labor Government was elected two years ago, there were high hopes that it would leave behind the more negative foreign policies of its predecessor Howard Coalition Government. What we have, though, is a foreign policy shambles, overwhelmingly as a result of the Rudd Government allowing itself to be trapped by the Howard Government’s legacy.
Australia’s policy on asylum seekers is framed by the Howard Government’s ‘dog whistle’ politics, which effectively bought off the Hansonite right and confused much of the middle ground over the distinction between legitimate refugees and illegal immigrants – the overwhelming majority of the latter arriving by plane.
Yet the Coalition has been successful in again wedging the Labor Party. In response, the government claims to be ‘tough on border protection’ but ‘humane on asylum seekers’. What it is, however, is confused.
The Regional Assistant Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), the multilateral intervention force, led by Australia, has been operating in the Solomon Islands for six years at a cost so far of about Aust$1 billion (for a population of 500,000 people).
When RAMSI first came to Solomon Islands in 2003, after the Townsville Peace Agreement, it was welcomed by almost all with open arms. It came at the invitation of the Governor General, Prime Minister and National Parliament at a time when the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal was still under the control of militants led by Harold Keke and when Malaita Eagle Force "special constables" were still stealing government money. The Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) was only beginning to rebuild, much of the judiciary system had collapsed and the prisons run down and insecure.
It’s hard to see how something like the “free” bike scheme being launched in Melbourne is going to be at all successful.
A report in The Age tells us that “users will pay a membership fee – $2.50 a day or up to $50 a year…” But, and here’s the killer, if a bike isn’t returned within half an hour, then people will be penalised heavily ($20 after two hours, and $370 after 10 hours). Add to this, the requirement for people to bring their own helmets, the danger of riding bikes in a very un-bike-friendly city, and the need to pre-register, as a marketer, I can see that in its current form, in this particular market, it is doomed to fail.
There is no issue more critical to the success of democratic projects anywhere than the civilian control and accountability of those institutions of state that exercise the capacity for compulsion; the military, police and intelligence services. The two requirements of these institutions of the ‘security sector’ are that they are effective in providing security from external threats and internal law breaking, and that they do not themselves constitute a threat to the state or its citizens. Where the security sector does not comply with these conditions, it can and often does create a hurdle to sustainable development, normative political progress and the sense of security these outcomes are nominally intended to provide.
With waves of Tamil refugees now fleeing Sri Lanka, the question has been raised as to whether any among those seeking asylum are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, a group proscribed as a terrorist organisation in many countries. This question reflects a Western obsession with ‘terrorism’, but not much about what drives people to supporting such ‘terrorism’ or fleeing their own country.
The situation in Sri Lanka has been, since independence in 1948, that the Tamil minority have been increasingly marginalised and persecuted by the Sinhalese majority. Sinhalese was long the official language of state, structurally excluding Tamils from public life, with this situation remaining the situation in practice. There have been numerous anti-Tamil riots and the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Tamils at various times over decades.
I did live in hope that we wouldn’t go the way of US schools, but I guess it was always going to be a bit difficult to resist. News that “leading educators” (are these official titles?) are willing to back sponsorship of schools by food companies such as McDonalds, and other commercial brands, puts children at more risk than simply being exposed to what Institute of Public Affairs executive director John Roskam says will be “five minutes of advertising a day”.
Of course, numeracy and literacy programs are critical, but at what cost?
Just two weeks before it recently left office, the outgoing legislature of Aceh, the DPRA, passed the Qanun Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Bylaw). International reporting on this move portrayed the legislation as allowing – or even requiring – the ‘stoning to death’ of adulterers and the torture of women. The international image of Indonesia generally and Aceh in particular suffered greatly, and unfairly.
It is widely assumed that the out-going DPRA passed this law in an unfortunate and misguided attempt to cause problems for the in-coming DPRA. But the real issue concerns the extent to which democratic principles are finding a home in Aceh, and in Indonesia.
As we learned from Foreign Minister Stephen Smith last night (20 October), there is now an agreement between the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for Indonesia to accept asylum seekers bound for Australia. Move over John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, and make way for Kevin Rudd’s ‘Indonesia Solution’. Mr Rudd will take considerable satisfaction from his visit, formally to mark President Yudhoyono’s swearing in for a second term, producing what he will no doubt regard as a diplomatic coup.
Australia’s sometimes difficult relations with Indonesia are travelling fairly well at the moment, in large part due to President Yudhoyono’s democratic reformist tendencies. That Mr Rudd is also comfortable with regional leaders, and has taken an active interest in Indonesia since at least 1997, further assists the relationship.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘alternative’ entry to university at the moment. Debate in this area always makes me smile, particularly when arguments about it are presented as if they are new.
The federal government agenda in relation to widening participation in higher education has led to some excited commentary about moving away from the traditional means of selecting students for university based on numerical, relative rankings derived from their senior high school performance.