Flashpoint No. 2 – Home truths

Wednesday, 15 July 2009 

I’ve got a total brief for his rights and his rights are non-existent when you compare them with the, what’s required under Australian law. And we should be standing up for Australian norms to be applied to this Australian citizen who’s under arrest and at great threat for his future wellbeing under the Chinese communist system.

Bob Brown 10 July 2009

Doctor Haneef enjoys the norms of detention under Australian laws

Highlighting the coalition’s hypocrisy by contrasting its response to Hick’s detention at Guantanamo is a good example, but surely Dr Haneef’s case is a better one. The detention of an Indian national for national security reasons (the UK’s) should make a good comparison. Of course Haneef was held in detention for twelve days before he was charged, so Bob Brown will be pleased to know that Mr Hu has a couple of days to go before he reaches the rigorous standards of the Australian judicial system.

The point is not to compare Chinese laws with Australian ones as politicians like Brown pretend to do (but don’t), but rather to highlight that when Australian politicians complain about someone being held on detention without charge, some Asian neighbours, especially a very large one to the north-west, might be thinking of someone other than Mr Hu.

Brown’s dumb comments, where he calls for China to implement Australian laws that presumably (giving him the benefit of the doubt), he doesn’t even agree with, sums up the way Australian politicians have been conducting themselves, oblivious to how they are perceived abroad and the reality at home. It may be possible to criticise the legal systems of Asian neighbours, but to them the sweeping and discretionary immigration powers that are regularly used against foreigners, like Haneef and his wife, or the suspension of anti-racial discrimination laws against sections of the Australian population, can look pretty quirky as well. Nor, given that both were supported by both sides of the House, might they detect the subtle change in tone that was supposed to have happened in November 2007.

The Australian political class has been caught out. For the last two years, Rudd has been posing a middle power diplomacy that made it seem as though Australia had a more independent foreign policy. In particular, Rudd has posed Australian foreign policy, and himself, as an interlocutor between the US and Beijing governments.

But based on what? It is hard to see a political case for Australia being an independent middle power in that role. It is not just how Australia’s immigration policies are viewed by countries whose citizens they are often aimed at. More important is the fact that countries like China are well aware that in pretty well every major military venture by the US, Australia goes in as well, irrespective of the hue of the government. There has been no change in that. Rudd is as gung-ho over this US administration’s latest venture in Afghanistan as Hawke was for the Gulf War. Maybe this blog missed it, but is there anyone else’s military ventures Australia is mucking in with? Even where the Australian military is deployed on its own, none of it is ever out of line with US foreign policy. As the government’s latest Defence Paper clearly set out, US influence may be in decline but Australia’s military strategy remains reliant on it. As the Chinese picked up, China is, if anything, viewed as the potential threat through which that decline is understood.

Nor is there an economic case. Australia may have significant trade flows with the Asian region but that doesn’t necessarily buy it independent influence, especially with China. China is Australia’s second latest trading partner and one of its most significant, but it certainly isn’t reciprocated. You wouldn’t guess it from the media, but China gets only 2% of its imports from Australia (and 2% of exports go to Australia). It is true that much of this 2% is in strategically crucial areas like iron (Australia makes up around 40% of China’s iron imports) but this is hardly enough to build a special relationship on.

The real basis for this presentation of a middle power role is Rudd himself, he is the first Australian Prime Minster to speak the language of one of the countries in the region and has worked in Beijing. That the US State Department may also have Mandarin speakers with even more experience of China on which the US can rely is not really the point. This is not about making any objective sense in the real world of international relations, but how it is perceived at home.

In reality Rudd is following the long tradition of Australian Prime Ministers strutting the world stage and being seen to act with an influence they don’t really have. Downer picks up on this perception gap with his weary complaint of being inundated with requests to rescue Australians, like Schapelle Corby, from the Indonesian judicial system. Now where could have everyone got the idea? Maybe from the way Downer and Howard sought to tell Indonesia how to run one of its islands a few years before.

The reason why they can usually get away with it (but almost didn’t in the case of East Timor) is because Australian political leaders are normally careful to operate strictly within the framework of the power of the day. So Howard could go around pretending it was a major player in the Iraq war, despite Australia’s minor deployment, because the US was prepared to indulge him on it – except when they turned against the war and towards the terrorist-loving Obama, and then they didn’t.

The difference with Rudd is that he tried to look as though he was operating outside that framework. In reality, he was not. He is operating as close to US interests as much as any of his predecessors. However, Rudd’s pretence of a middle power policy was partly as a response to the drift in US foreign policy since the failure of Bush’s unilateralism, but also to make a virtue of this government’s reliance on the international agenda as well. Rudd’s middle power diplomacy was the left-wing version of Howard’s ‘deputy sheriff’ role, both self-aggrandising, but Rudd’s unfortunately relied on a power that had no major interest in making him look good.

This is the central irony of the Rudd government and one of its core weaknesses. Never has a government so directly internationalised what used to be seen as core domestic issues, like the economy, yet never has an Australian Prime Minister operated in such an uncertain international framework as now, with the leading global power in decline. Unlike in 1941, this time there is nowhere else to go.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 15 July 2009.

Filed under International relations

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5 responses to “Flashpoint No. 2 – Home truths”

  1. Nigel on 16th July 2009 11:41 am

    The hipocrisy of Australians on the whole is breathtaking. Haneef, Mr Ward, suspending human Rights to send in the army for indigenous Australians (when child abuse in predominantly white housing areas like ingleburn etc are as bad or worse)are all considered above board or at best regrettable. However, we still do not actually know if Stern Hu as done anything wrong, and we have people calling for his release!

    Why do we as Australians feel we are so superior to most other cultures, we are a flea to China’s elephant and yet, we expect them to jump at our demand, or to give us more respect than, we on the whole give them. I would have hoped that Bob Brown would be above this, but he is slowly proving to be another politician. Where does this arrogance come from?

    P.S First time responder long time reader, keep up the good work! 😉

  2. Riccardo on 16th July 2009 12:14 pm

    Are you sure Brown is your target? He complained loud and quickly about Haneef’s treatment and I don’t think he meant that as the ‘norm’ – sarcastically or otherwise. Or Hicks for that matter. I suspect ‘norm’ in his statement means the textbook legal process, innocent until proven guilty, review of incarceration before a judge, and so on.

    I would agree we say different things to China and India about justice – and that’s wrong. Indians are fair game for racists and police here and all we need is whitewash. But China is not allowed to treat us the same.

    Agree with the rest though. Australia, for such a ‘diverse’ place, seems cut off from a lot of the real international horse trading and as you’ve said, with so little to hold our political system up, any crutch, like foreign affairs, will do.

    Tell me TPS, when will some real issues, moral issues that people actually disagree about, like death penalty or abortion, actually raise their heads? The 2-party system has done its best to keep this issues out of politics, knowing the gravy train would derail and many would lose their seats if actual issues were contested.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 16th July 2009 7:48 pm

    I think it’s for that reason Brown is a good target. He at least had the decency to oppose the Coalition’s treatment of Haneef (unlike Labor’s ‘principled’ support) but then promptly forgot the laws that allowed the Coalition to do what they did, when he joined the others on their high horse over Hu.

    The fact is that the 1958 Migration Act and the 2004 Anti-Terrorism, that were used against Haneef, and water down the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, which we are supposed to hold so dear, are still on the statute books.

    I sort of agree with you that the terms of political debate are too narrow. It is striking on those blogs that posture themselves as ‘alternatives’ to the MSM that where Hu is raised at all, they seem far more comfortable talking about Hicks and the problems of the US’s detention laws, than Haneef and the problems of Australia’s.

    [Thanks Nigel. I moved your comment to the correct thread, hope you don’t mind.]

  4. Ricc on 16th July 2009 11:00 pm

    I suppose my comment on Haneef was that there was a broad front of opposition to the way he was being treated, including by Rudd if I recall correctly.

    The charge of terrorism is serious and the conspiratorial nature of it has always afforded all governments some latitude in holding people without usual liberties at least for the period it might take to stop further offences taking place.

    With Hicks, my own recollection was that not much was known about his case to the general public in the early years (and whether that was lack of interest, or a cover up, I’ll never know).

    The issue you’re talking about reminds me of the overboard issue VERSUS the Seiv X. Some commentators (Marr?) have suggested the overboard issue was simply vilification of “men with beards” while the Seiv X was tantamount to mass murder. And the media focused on the overboard issue because the Seiv X was unspeakably horrid, we couldn’t possibly have done something that bad. So not a government conspiracy as such, but a media one, brought on by extreme guilt and shame.

    So I suppose I see these issues as ’emphasis’ and ‘degree’ rather than legal or matters of fact. Haneef was as deserving of public support and sympathy as Hicks (unless you award extra points for being held longer!) and the Hu case is no different, arresting someone in their hotel room on spurious charges, than arresting a loner waiting for a transport at a northern afghan outpost, trying to get home from an ill-thought-out escapade. Or arresting a man who may have shown some interest in a case involving his second-cousin’s housemate in Glasgow or whatever it was and whether it would impact him.

    Whatever the actual laws that apply to their respective offences, the misapplication of those laws is injustice to each of those men.

    Politically, I think Kevin Andrews was a walking disaster and very transparent in his aim to cook up racist sentiment to skim another 0.3% of a swing or whatever in their grimmest time. A savvier politician might have looked a bit less obvious about doing so.

    Remember his African crime wave as well. He actually revisited a Departmental fait-accompli from months before, to shift refugee intake from Africans to Iraqis and Burmese due to pressures in the conflict zones -to make the specific point that it was because of the Africans and their criminal nature when it clearly was not.

    So I do buy your line that this storm in a prison cell is the way it is because a lot of political actors are wearing no clothes on both sides.

    I was astounded the other night to hear Chris Uhlmann basically saying that because Rudd is not able to charm the Chinese, and because China won’t change, therefore we should cave in to whatever the Chinese want to get our man back. Obviously when you’ve been licking the Yanks shoes for so long, that type of behaviour comes naturally to some.

  5. Ricc on 16th July 2009 11:10 pm

    Just to clarify on the SEIV-X my understanding of the events as told by others is that someone may have sabotaged the boat, either on orders from, and/or in the pay of, Australian authorities, the boat left anyway, it sank, possibly because of the sabotage, hundreds died, decisions were taken in Australia not to effect rescue, which is a chain of events which my limited legal knowledge tells me could be construed as conspiracy to murder or accessory to murder. If I cut your brake cables and then I watched you drive off and the police investigation finds you ‘probably’ died because you couldn’t stop, that would usually be called murder.

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