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.
It should note that the underlying assumption of the numbers of asylum seekers is great is factually incorrect. Second, anyone prepared to risk their life and those of their loved ones on a perilous sea journey more than likely has pretty good reasons to do so. That asylum seekers are, after processing, almost entirely found to be genuine refugees needs to be made clear.
Third, asylum seekers can and should be accommodated within the Australian community during processing. Locking them in a prison on a remote island for the crime of being a victim is at best inhumane, and arguably barbaric. Australia’s traditional value of supporting the underdog indicates we are better than that.
And do we forget so quickly that Australia accommodated many tens of thousands of refugees following the Second World War, who have contributed so richly to our evolving culture? Do we forget that we are, bar Indigenous communities, all descendent of people seeking (or being forced to have) a new start?
A few wild-eyed rednecks from the lunatic fringe will, of course, froth at the mouth. But they are not government supporters anyway. And the Opposition’s record on asylum seekers is so woeful that any half-humane case for accepting asylum seekers would counter that in minutes.
But of course, the problem is not that asylum seekers wish to come here. It is that people are compelled to flee their homes. On this, Australia would do well to join the US and the EU and cast a sharply critical eye over the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of its own citizens and its rapid slide towards military authoritarianism.
Sharply restricting aid to other than displaced Tamils would be a good start, to be followed by joining the international chorus of condemnation of Sri Lanka’s litany of war crimes and human rights abuses that are daily becoming more apparent. Sending asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka, as suggested by one or two of our less intellectually astute politicians, would be complicity in their murder.
On this side of the Indian Ocean, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has always been tricky, and is so again. The one lesson from this that even the crusty old Jakarta Lobby agrees with is that Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations must be built not on personal relationships, which change, but on institutional relationships. That way, if Indonesia’s president says we have an agreement, we might actually expect to see it implemented.
But of course, using Indonesia as a dumping ground for hapless asylum seekers is extraordinarily ill-conceived, from any perspective. If an Australian ship picks up asylum seekers then, under the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory, we have a binding duty of care. The Australian government needs to be clear on this.
Among other foreign policy blunders, one can only hope that Australia will end its military presence from Iraq and make fulsome reparations for its share in the havoc and misery there. Fulsome field consultation and generous support for improving health, education, potable water and, not least, rule of law, in what are now functionally the three autonomous provinces of Iraq, would be small steps in the right direction.
In Afghanistan, following the UK, Australian combat troops should be withdrawn, in tandem with ramped up efforts at second track diplomacy with members of the alliance of anti-Westerners currently loosely grouped under the heading of ‘Taliban’.
Again, proper, sustainable development, based on field consultation and again focusing on education and health care, infrastructure and public education around rule of law, are critical to political stability.
It is possible to see in Afghanistan a government that is not corrupt (as the Taliban in government were not), does not harbour international criminals (the Taliban might have learned from that error of judgement), and which does not seek to destabilise its region (which has occurred with the initial complicity of Pakistani military intelligence).
The US, Australia and others withdrew from Vietnam, in humiliation, in the early 1970s. Thereafter followed a few years of unhappiness, the inevitable consequence of resolving the outstanding issues of a bitter civil war. But Vietnam stabilised and prospered, and is now a respected international partner, if not yet a paragon of democratic openness.
Afghanistan has never enjoyed Vietnam’s historic unity and is unlikely to succeed as a unitary state. It may, however, at least stabilise, and from that stability develop more peacefully. This, however, will not happen while the country is occupied by foreign armies which provide ordinary Afghanis with a reason to destroy rather than rebuild their societies.