Pragmatic and out of touch

Friday, 27 April 2007 

In 2001, at the height of the Tampa affair, Beazley came out with an alternative policy to deal with illegal refugees. He proposed setting up a coastguard to patrol northern waters in close cooperation with Indonesia. The policy drew on his experience as Defence Minister and tapped into the unhappiness from some quarters of the Navy about their use in policing refugees. It was widely agreed to be a sensible, cost effective and pragmatic policy.

As a political response, of course, it was an utter failure. The problem was that it may have addressed the problem as it was posed, but not as it existed. Even Labor itself pointed out there was no real refugee problem, ship numbers were not increasing to the extent that they could not be easily absorbed. What the refugee crisis tapped into was the real problem at that time, the lack of a clear framework for managing international relations. The refugee influx triggered a panic because there seemed no basis for negotiating with other countries to stop the flow.

For Australia, the absence of such a framework was keenly felt in its relations with Indonesia that had become less active in halting refugee ships before they entered Australian waters. Beazley could propose the obvious solution of working closer with Indonesia but no means for how this was to be done. Howard’s hard-line response was irrational but seemed to make sense against the vacuum in international relations at the time. This result of the failure of Clinton’s humanitarianism foreign policy was a major concern in Washington with the new Bush administration that would not be resolved until later that year on 11 September.

Now that the War on Terror is being superseded by the Global Warming agenda, Howard has similar problems to those faced by Beazley six years ago. Howard is trying to sound pragmatic and sensible on climate change, certainly not hard to do against Labor and the Greens. The latter brings out a policy document to cut emission without even an attempt to estimate the economic impact. Labor’s economic spokesman sounds equally unconvincing on Lateline talking about the consequences of bringing in their climate change response.

Costello has a point when he calls Labor religious fanatics on the issue. The trouble is that the gap between heaven and earth in this case is between a new global agenda that is now being formed and its eventual translation to a domestic agenda. Here it is heaven that is the reality, the earth that is yet to be created. The same gap that makes Labor sound religious, but rooted in reality, was the same gap that made Howard sound like a knee-jerk racist, but in tune with the nation back in the days of Tampa.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 27 April 2007.

Filed under International relations

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