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.
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.
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.
You know, I really struggle when somebody asks me to define postmodernism. The thing is that by its very conceptual nature, postmodernism surely can't be defined. But I usually come up with something lame like no absolute truths, or postmodern is not modernism, blah, blah, blah.
But last night, on Australian TV, I think we experienced postmodernism in all its tumescent glory.
You see, there was a TV show that was on for 20 years, back in the 80s and 90s, called Hey Hey, It's Saturday. It was cancelled in 1999, mostly because of sagging ratings, but also because the executives decided that Australia was ready for a different form of entertainment. One of the sequences on this program was called Red Faces, where amateur performers could get up and perform in front of an in-studio, and Australia-wide audience.
The death yesterday of South-east Asia’s most wanted criminal, the terrorist Noordin Mohamad Top, came as a happy surprise to Indonesian authorities, given they did not know he was in the Solo, Central Java house they were raiding. However, given the closing security net around Top, it was always possible that he would meet his end in such an unplanned way.
The real question that comes with the death of Malaysian-born Top is whether this will spell an end to Islamist terrorism in Indonesia or, indeed, South-East Asia. The answer is twofold, the first part depending on how one defines ‘terrorism’, and the second part depending on how one defines ‘Islamism’.
You wouldn’t expect a surgeon to recommend Chinese medicine to his patients. His advice usually involves a scalpel and some nasty cutting. Similarly, it would be surprising for military men to advocate political solutions to global conflicts. It’s not their area of professional expertise. By default they lead with their strongest suit – organised violence - not geopolitics or diplomacy.
Like economists and market forecasting, the consistent failure of military options in the modern world is rarely a deterrent, or even disheartening, for men with guns. Victory is always only just another battalion or squadron away. However, after eight long and costly years, it is increasingly obvious to most Australians that there are no military solutions to Afghanistan’s complex social and political problems. The Taliban, even without aircraft, satellites or armour, are unlikely to be defeated by either Western troops or their local proxies.
The recent “Father Bob” controversy suggests that perhaps Bob Maguire should be put in charge of marketing strategy at Christian HQ (not sure if they have a headquarters, but it sounds good – a big Church with cars with flashing crucifixes parked out the front; lots of people walking around with Bibles looking serious; interrogating atheists; all wearing those cassock thingies and the Pope headgear).