In the last week Papua New Guinea (PNG) has received more exposure in the Australian media than it has for a very long time indeed. Ever since news of the ‘Regional Resettlement Arrangement Between Australia and Papua New Guinea’ agreement between Prime Ministers Rudd and O’Neill appeared on 19 July, discussion and criticism of the so-called ‘PNG Solution’ has been widespread on the internet, on television, radio, and even in the few newspapers still being published. Media outlets which negligently had let their regional coverage slip away – preferring to invest their remaining funds into reportage of last night’s Masterchef – are now scrambling to find copy from anyone with either opinions on the subject, but little knowledge, or some direct knowledge of PNG, alas in short supply.
One could ‘sniff the wind’ and come up with similar responses to the Lowy Institute Poll 2013. But the poll does provide some detail, if again showing up a range of expected and occasionally surprising results on how the Australian public view our position in the world. And again, a large proportion of Australia’s foreign policy experts will tut-tut, shake their heads and say that the result explains why foreign policy is too important an issue to be left to the voters.
Perceptions on Indonesia is regularly held up as a case in point. Most Australians remain ‘luke-warm’ towards Indonesia, which scores 53 on the Lowy ‘thermometer’ scale. Most Australians (83%) say that Australia is a good neighbour to Indonesia, but only 54% believe that Indonesia is a good neighbour to Australia. People smuggling stands out as the major issue, with only 30% saying that Indonesia helps Australia combat people smuggling.
Consistent with these broader views, there also remain persistent perceptions of Indonesia as a source of terrorism and as a military threat. This is despite major efforts against terrorism within Indonesia and it never having had the capacity to meaningfully threatening Australia.
Only a third of Australians view Indonesia as a democracy, reflecting a range of competing images that are from time to time presented in Australia. Indonesia has had regular elections since 1999, but occasional reports of human rights abuses, corruption scandals and so on continue to sully the image of rule of law in Indonesia.
Without the Lowy Report asking why so many Australians view Indonesia as non-democratic despite regular elections, there appears to be a non-articulated perception that ‘democracy’ means more than just going to the ballot box every five years. This is consistent with a more ‘substantive’, as opposed to ‘procedural’ understanding of democracy.
The Lowy Report also showed that concern over the boat arrival of asylum seekers remained at around three-quarters, despite an increased arrival rate. Older people appear more concerned about boat arrivals than younger people, although the issue does resonate across generations.
Not unreasonably, China was overwhelmingly identified (76%) as key to Australia’s economy, but the US trumped it (82%) as important to Australia’s security. On this, 61% agree that China will eventually become the world’s major superpower. Related to this, most also believe that China will eventually become a military threat to Australia. But for the moment, Australians believe they can have their cake and eat it too.
The Lowy Report also surveyed perceptions on offshore processing (supported); action on climate change (more – 40% - say it is a problem and fewer – 54% - wanting to reverse the carbon tax), the Afghanistan war (61% say it is not worth fighting), WikiLeaks (58% support, down 4%) and terrorism, with 68% saying the government has struck the right balance.
Perhaps most disturbingly, though, what they survey did show was that younger people are increasingly ambivalent about democracy. Only 39% of 19-29 year olds agreed that democracy was preferable to any other form of government, and just over a quarter of all respondents agreed that non-democracy can be preferable in some circumstances.
In this, perhaps in the current domestic political environment, voters have increasingly adopted Winston Churchill’s famous dictum, that democracy is the worst form of government.
He qualified that statement, however, by adding ‘except for all the others’.
Timor-Leste is a country born of a keen awareness of its security needs and aspirations. In the period of transition from Portuguese rule, the country and its people descended into a brief but bloody civil war, then almost immediately faced incursions from across the western border. Its people underwent 24 devastating years of occupation and resistance, emerging to confront a new security threat – that of a country largely destroyed. Timor-Leste has built since then, but again faced an internal security crisis as some of our citizens and institutions of state, still unready for full self-responsibility, took Timor-Leste back to the edge. It has since come out of that process having learned and grown.
Timor-Leste now has two security focuses:
Australia recently signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates to provide uranium for the Persian Gulf country’s planned nuclear power plants.
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.
In order for democracy to really take hold in the wake of the recent Arab Revolutions, the people of the region should be careful not to conform to Western ideas of democracy and instead develop their own model, one relevant to their own cultural norms and in tune with their own rich history of democracy.
The Arab Revolutions themselves give us insight into what this model might look like. Indeed, recent events are to be admired for the extent to which divergent voices have been heard, legitimate grievances have been aired, and women and minorities have been involved.
They are also to be admired because a balance has often been struck between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the secular and the religious, between the desire not just to oust failing tyrants but to replace them with something new, something that could respond to the varying needs of the citizens.
Although Australia has repeatedly expressed its solidarity and support with the Arab uprisings and has called for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya, what exactly Australia should learn from the popular democratic movements sweeping across the region has yet to be considered.
The dramatic sequence of pro-democracy movements that are emerging in the Middle East and North Africa serve as a unique opportunity for Australian politicians and policy-makers to learn three key lessons which have very specific consequences for Australia’s foreign policy, its trade and security, and its relationships with the Arab world.