Saturday, 20 July 2013 



That's better.

That’s better.

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

JWH 28 October 2001

In our perspective such a policy would constitute a unilateral type of measure that we do not support.

Marty Natalegawa 15 July 2013

Mr Rudd is always trying to internationalise problems.

Tony Abbott 15 July 2013

Before we start, let’s just clear away the cant of politicians wringing their hands claiming this is all about stopping deaths at sea. There is a very simple way to stop deaths at sea that curiously neither Labor, nor the Coalition, nor the Greens ever propose: simply send ships and planes to bring them safely over to Australia. Right. So at least we know that’s not what we’re talking about here.

In reality the asylum seeker debate is an increasingly shame-faced debate about sovereignty. It’s the primary concern of the right, but also the governing left. Added to that, more on the left side, the asylum seeker debate is also how politicians have understood their growing detachment from their social base.

This makes asylum seeker policy primarily a concern of our political class that tends to be projected onto the electorate, exaggerating its electoral importance. Laurie Ferguson, for example, was telling us a few weeks ago that boat arrivals were killing Labor in Sydney. So he must have been surprised when Rudd’s rebound was especially strong in Sydney on an issue he is seen to be weak on (but given that polls also show that, despite the best efforts of Labor and the Coalition, voters think Rudd is better than Abbott and Gillard at “making things happen”, maybe the public takes about as much notice of what politicians say as politicians do of what the public thinks).

Because the asylum seeker debate is not about what it seems to be, Rudd’s announcement yesterday was more disruptive than its technicalities suggest. After all, in principle, there is not such an enormous difference between resettlement in Papua New Guinea, or being sent to the back of some undefined queue in Gillard’s Malaysian Solution or indefinite detention in Nauru under Howard (as a refugee you had a better chance of coming to Australia from Howard’s Nauru, but only because he couldn’t get enough other countries to take them at the time). Nor will it necessarily stop the boats, at least in the medium term. Yet Rudd’s announcement is disruptive because of the context in which it has been delivered, from what has happened since he returned to office, and what is likely to happen from now.

A difficulty of following the current fast pace of change is that much of it is being driven by events that happened years ago. For example, the breakdown in Labor’s power structures that allowed the return of Rudd, and has been accelerating since, stems from the end of Labor’s historical project 20 years ago under Hawke and Keating.

But things do not move in a straight line. At times the old order reasserts itself and progress, at least on the surface, appears to stand still. The Gillard years represented the party’s power bases reasserting themselves, dumping a first term Labor Prime Minister in a desperate attempt to regain control. Yet things carry on under the surface, the stasis is temporary and when it ends, suddenly change happens at the speed of a cavalry camel.

This applies not only to the Australian political scene. Around the world, at the same time as Labor’s historic project (and hence the non-Labor’s project as well) was being wound down, parties of the left and right were undergoing upheaval coinciding with the end of the Cold War on the international stage.

Politically, the biggest loser of the end of the Cold War, besides the Soviet Union, was the US. The threat of nuclear destruction was an ideal means for the US to assert global leadership as the world waited breathlessly for the result of each superpower summit. Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 we have been seeing something unusual, a superpower whose political influence is declining faster than its economic dominance would suggest.

But again not in a straight line. The War on Terror following 9/11 allowed the US to recover the leadership that drifted during the Clinton years. Yet the recovery was not permanent. Indeed the War on Terror, especially the war in Iraq, eventually just further exposed the US’s increasing isolation on the world stage and Obama was left to pull the US back and try to rebuild lost alliances and influence.

The temporary revival of US authority from the War on Terror had a direct impact on Australian domestic politics. It turned what had been a leader of a flagging government into the Man of Steel who would beat Labor two more times. It also allowed Howard to turn around the issue that had been the clearest symbol of the loss of authority during the first five years of his government, boat arrivals. Howard’s assertion that “we will decide” a month after 9/11 was hubris backed up by a War on Terror that not only allowed Howard to turn it into a security issue, but to get the support of regional players, especially Indonesia, to cooperate to do something about it.

It’s no coincidence then that during that other lurch back during the Gillard years, the asylum debate flowed directly from the Howard years as second time farce, culminating in politicians flocking to one side of the House to bring back Howard’s Pacific Solution to stop the boats when, of course, it did no such thing. Because, compared to Howard’s time, internationally things had kept moving on.

Just how much has been revealed as Rudd breaks up the cosy Gillard-Abbott pas de deux, bringing in the new international reality that both sides have done their best to ignore. This new reality asserted itself on 31 May 2013 when, after months of Australia ignoring the message from Jakarta, it sent its representative to Australia to spell it out directly to the nation’s media.

The intervention of the Indonesians has been like a shock to the political system. Despite the obvious blow it gave to the Coalition’s boat policy, Gillard Labor did nothing. Yet on his return, Rudd not only used it but deliberately escalated it at his first press conference by raising the possibility of military conflict to the howls of expert political commentators. Then, to rub it in, the Indonesian Foreign Minister was brought over to give the same message in several interviews on Australian media.

The right’s response has been a mixture of confusion and outrage. The confusion was summed up by Morrison who, in the space of one day, leapt on the Foreign Minister’s remarks that he was open to talking to the Coalition as implying the possibility of agreement – before the Foreign Minister went to the next interview to make clear there wasn’t – after which Morrison said that it didn’t matter whether Indonesia agreed anyway.

The outrage was best summed up by The Australian’s in-house rationalist Chris Kenny, who castigated Carr and the meeja for the disgraceful manipulation of the Foreign Minister in the second interview – as though he was a naïf who had just stepped off the boat rather than a senior representative of a major Asian economy merely repeating what his government had been saying to deaf ears for months. Kenny thought it was disgraceful that Labor was using foreign leaders for blatant domestic purposes, clearly forgetting Bush’s intervention on Howard’s behalf against Latham in 2004, which, given that Kenny was on Downer’s staff at the time, is surprising. But then the US meddling in Australian affairs is different.

Actually it is. The US has traditionally played a critical role in Australian politics. For a middling power, Australia has an unusual foreign policy. Australian diplomacy doesn’t really do regionalism, however it much it likes to pretend to. It rather relies on attaching itself very close to whatever is the leading global superpower of the day, so giving the political class an authority that home-grown institutions don’t quite bestow. Even when it goes into the region, Australia is inevitably seen by its Asian neighbours as America’s stooge, or “deputy sheriff”, as it is more politely known. The relationship with the US goes to the core of the political system and is inviolable. So Rudd’s bringing in of Asian neighbours into the Australian political debate is new and disruptive.

But it is also not just one-way. Yesterday’s deal with Papua New Guinea also locks Australia intimately, and openly, into the prospects of a nearest neighbour, and a potentially unstable one at that. One reason PNG may now be more open to negotiation than it was with past entreaties from the Howard government is the current weakness of the state, to which Rudd has now hooked Australia politically and financially.

The only response from here is to regionalise and internationalise the asylum seeker issue even further. Just as Rudd has shifted the economic debate to the Chinese slowdown, he continues as he did in his first stint with climate change: using international agendas to disrupt the domestic one. Except this time the Great Destabiliser has moved up a notch.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 20 July 2013.

Filed under International relations, Tactics

Tags: , , ,


27 responses to “Foreigners”

  1. Bill on 20th July 2013 10:32 am

    There must be a big heap of financial aid heading towards PNG to sweeten the deal. The PNG government might be happy in the short term, but the concerns of the locals about the types of people arriving to their shores/ how they may/probably WON’T fit in .. is cause to wonder how this will pan out long term(pressure from locals to scrap the deal?).

    Short term, it looks very good for Rudd, and Abbott/his team are probably crapping themselves at the narrowing of the polls. As usual, they managed to find the negative in what appears to be a great solution. ‘It won’t work under Labor’ / ‘who do you trust’ etc; etc;

    I have resisted the temptation to download or look at Abbott’s ‘Real Solutions’ / have enough toilet paper as it is.

    I guess we can look forward to an election date sooner than later, and all those (aagh!) intrusive /repetitive ads that drive most of us bonkers every 5 seconds or so. Might as well get the pain out of the way (‘make it stop !’).

  2. AvalonDave on 20th July 2013 10:53 am

    who do you trust to stop the ads

  3. Doug on 20th July 2013 11:04 am

    Much of the debate misses the issue of the linkage of Australia to development in PNG – though the argument is that the internationalisation has not gone far enough

  4. dee on 20th July 2013 1:42 pm

    “Sending boats to pick them up” is simplistic. What if then they flood to Indonesia causing more problems for the Indonesians and if it’s not done fast enough they are then lured into dangerous boats again?

  5. Snorky on 20th July 2013 3:31 pm

    I love your work Shrike, but can’t agree that there isn’t much difference between the PNG solution announced yesterday and Howard’s Pacific solution. Everybody, even Howard knew from day one that those sent to Nauru would not be accepted by other countries (although New Zealand did take a few) and that therefore they would eventually end up in Australia, as the vast majority did. The obvious difference with what was announced yesterday is that they won’t end up in Australia. Ever.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 20th July 2013 4:10 pm

    Yes, but that was only because they could only find enough to accept half of them. The rest came to Australia by default. If Howard/Downer could have, none of them would.

    Also those sent to Malaysia were not guaranteed to eventually end up in Australia, there was an intention to resettle in other UNHCR countries as well. Rudd here is only being explicit because he can.

  7. David Jackmanson on 20th July 2013 5:12 pm

    I think “as though he was a naiveté” should be “as though he were a naïf”?

    Two things that have struck me since Rudd’s announcement:

    1) People who consider themselves progressives seem to be assuming that a wave of racist bogans who weren’t going to vote for Rudd now will.

    2) Rudd lost a lot of authority and goodwill (and about 3% of the TPP vote) after he turned out to be a damp squib on climate change, in late April 2010.

    I have no idea what will happen this time around but I’m pretty sure that people *assuming* that this will swing votes to Rudd haven’t considered those two facts.

  8. adamite on 20th July 2013 9:04 pm

    PS – An interesting post. Perhaps its not so much the case of a pas de deux as a theatrical pas de trois? Marx once said that history always repeats itself, the second time as farce. But with the AS issue since Howard, it seems to have repeated itself at least thrice as an ongoing farce driven by a perverse mix of political expediency and an appeal to popular delusions of sovereign invincibility. The likelihood of Rudd’s latest production evolving into anything more substantial than thos e preceding it clearly rests on very shaky foundations given the multiple domestic and foreign sovereign interests which have to be placated to keep it in place.

  9. John on 20th July 2013 10:53 pm

    Sounds a bit like a Greens spiel to me ie the bit about sending our boats and planes to prevent deaths at sea Except on the few occasions deaths at sea have been acknowledged at all the Greens and their apologists have attempted to suggest that a fatality rate of 3% is an acceptable trade off. Not even Abbott or Morrison have tried to argue this scabrous proposition.

    In any cass that would only deal with those who have tried the conventional route and more than cover our intended asylum intake. The smugglers would use this an indication of a lack of resolve find their own clientele among those who cannot wait and are prepared to pay and take the risk

  10. Jay Buoy on 20th July 2013 11:43 pm

    Morrison foaming at the mouth and intimating that the Indonesian foreign Minister had been intimidated by Bob Carr
    Sussex Street style into complying was completely reckless.
    Especially when the LNP had been trying to verbal him by pretending they had been in “discussions” over their towback policy and he was compliant (wink wink).. Morrison makes Phil Ruddock look empathetic.. no mean feat..

  11. djbtak on 20th July 2013 11:44 pm

    Although you are a reliable radar to the domestic political scene Shrike, but like Snorky, I think you are a little off-base in underplaying the departure from previous policies. It may be the case that Howard/Gillard “would have” shipped more asylum seekers offshore, but neither of them have said anything like what Rudd stated about boat arrivals never being settled in Australia. This marks a clear (if not unexpected) assertion of unilateralism on refugee issues and a basic fuck-off to the historical multilateral conventions. It is clever politics but must be seen in the context of growth in the security/detention industries where these are no longer seen as state costs but viable state owned enterprises. This is the kind of “economic development” flowing to PNG – a new form of cash for “copper”.

  12. John on 21st July 2013 2:46 am is reporting that assembled Afghans in Indonesia are saying that a boat journey is no longer an option and they will be seekin UNHR assessments

  13. The Piping Shrike on 21st July 2013 8:39 am

    Just on this difference between Nauru and Malaysia, I think there is some reading backwards here. When Howard sent them off to Nauru the assumption was that they would not eventually come to Australia. They tried desperately to get them settled elsewhere but over half ended up in Australia.

    But I recall that the fact that the proportion ending up in Australia was so high was an embarrassment and used by Labor as a sign it didn’t “work”.

    The key difference is that Rudd achieved what Howard and Downer tried to achieve but couldn’t, a permanent place to resettle. There are political difficulties for PNG doing so, my guess is that aid and the weakness of the PNG state are factors.

    Malaysia was different, the intention to resettle elsewhere was less explicit, but it was certainly the intention. Curiously it didn’t prevent the Greens continuing the Alliance. But they have positioning issues right now.

  14. Fed up on 21st July 2013 1:44 pm

    Is it a about a war on refugees and them coming by boat. I believe not, that is just to dramatic and detracts from the problem.

    it is about removing the option of coming by bait. The latest actions does this. Yes, these people flee from danger, they do make choices in the process.

    Who knows, PNG might interest some especially if they have professional skills that can be put to good use.

  15. Doug on 21st July 2013 1:53 pm

    Interview with Sean Dorney in PNG highlighted a range of difficulties in PNG – there is a question about how durable the settlement would be with a change of PM in that country

  16. Senexx on 21st July 2013 9:28 pm

    As a perceived racist bogan that is not actually a racist bogan (even though it is unlikely someone that thinks in these terms will accept an alternative view) – not that anyone has ever made the case that this is racist other than people stating it is and it being inherently accepted that it is – it has made it more likely that I’ll favour his side over Abbott’s.

    Another thing that has not be considered is that this might actually help PNG develop.

    Shrike makes the point it is about sovereignty and I agree. I don’t care what race, colour, creed you are but if you’re on Australian shores right now then I care more about you than anyone who is on their way here by boat.

  17. Tom on 22nd July 2013 4:17 pm

    Good post as ever, but I don’t think it has your usual ironclad grip on the tactics, the intent and the reality of policy implementation for the various versions of offshore processing we’ve had since Howard.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the future politics of the PNG solution – where the blowback will be in the medium term, basically. I don’t think anyone can see this working out without issue over a long period.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 22nd July 2013 5:39 pm

    Don’t think there is much immediate downside politically, probably the longer term risk is the increased lock in to a weak state.

    A lot of what you are going to hear now is left-right repositioning rather than real indicators where things are heading.

  19. Making things happen: race, borders & the state - Left Flank on 22nd July 2013 11:01 pm

    […] policy into the power relations of the region, as well as beyond. In a very sharp analysis, The Piping Shrike has outlined how regional realities have allowed Rudd to use the international elements to his advantage to be […]

  20. Tom on 22nd July 2013 11:18 pm

    Thanks PS. By “increased lock in” to you mean that the policy is dependent on a state that can’t be relied upon to carry out what Rudd intends to charge it with?

    I think that may well be the case. I thought Andrew Bartlett’s comments on Tad Tietze’s “turning point” post were also insightful. I’m sure that if this policy is implemented in the wake of a Rudd win the Coalition will be scraping hard for evidence that it’s not working.

  21. The Piping Shrike on 23rd July 2013 12:24 am

    I mean by lock in that the Australian government is funding and effectively taking over key functions of the program, tying it up closer to the PNG state and its stability.

  22. Riccardo on 23rd July 2013 8:34 pm

    Or recolonisation.

    At the end of the day, this is not just about the weakness of the Aust poltical class, but the Aust political project. This country is nothing more than a legal construct, an entity in control of a landmass, nothing more.

    There is no Australian ethnc group, no culture, no history, only fve hundred odd people groups on their own customary territories till 1788, then a mass of white people whose only real discernible achievement is the legal entity, created to stop fights about trade.

    The political class grasp any shred of identity they can, as if to prove they, not their British, American or lately Chinese masters should not administer the place directly.

  23. Dianne on 25th July 2013 8:18 am

    Interesting analysis as always PS but I am compelled to insert some outrage.

    I am appalled by the cold-bloodedness of this policy, the capitulation of the party and the hypocrisy of the right-wing in attacking this Rudd initiative. And of course if the Libs get in they will keep the policy.

    But I do not believe it will work.

    If you are fleeing for your life or an existence which offers no future for your family you will continue to get on a boat to Australia. Hazaras are already saying that they cannot return to Afghanistan where they are persecuted and they cannot stay in Indonesia which offers no future. They have no choice but go to PNG no doubt hoping that they will end up in Australia despite what Rudd says. After all there is a precedent. Most of those on Nauru eventually settled in Australia.

    It seems to me that we have entered into a neo-colonial relationship with PNG except that they will hold the power. We will give them lots of money and they will always have the upper hand as the hosts for our refugee ‘problem’.

    What sort of people have we become that we can enter into such an agreement with a country with all the attributes of a failed state: poverty and its twin, corruption, violence of appalling levels and disease. How dare we send traumatised families into such a hopeless situation.

    I would love seeing the long tail of noughts on the money promised to date. How much will ever benefit the people of PNG? If hospitals and education do improve for the Papuans it would indeed be a positive outcome.
    However I heard Warren Entsch talking about the dire impact of corruption on local health facilities in PNG in recent weeks. One Australian ‘clinic’ he visited was a tumbledown shed. The equipment? An old torch. Entsch told of one family who were so desperate to receive medical attention for their son who had broken his back that they strapped him to a door and towed him to the Torres Straits.

    What future problems will brew if we continue to ‘solve’ our asylum seeker ‘problem’ by imposing Muslims on an overwhelmingly Christian society with endemic problems?

    Our short term mindset has taken down a very immoral road this time.

  24. Dianne on 25th July 2013 8:23 am

    That clinic Entsch referred to was Australian-funded, not Australian.

  25. atomou on 25th July 2013 8:51 am


    “It seems to me that we have entered into a neo-colonial relationship with PNG…” Tick!

    “…except that they will hold the power.” Not if by “they” you mean the PNGeans. The corrupt thugs and various mafiosi in politics and major projects, yes.

    “We will give them lots of money and they will always have the upper hand as the hosts for our refugee ‘problem’.” I’m not sure if our gruesome thugs here, will perpetuate this busted blister for much longer than a year. Devout hypocrites will eventually have to walk into the confessional and admit the ownership of their grievous sins. They will think of the number of Hale bloody Maries they’ll have to say and whether they’ll live long enough to say them all, before they meet their confected maker.

    “What sort of people have we become…”
    Wealthy, abhorrent bastards! Alas!

  26. Dianne on 25th July 2013 9:14 am

    Tick Tick Tick Tick for you Atomou

    And ominously

    Tick,tick,tick for the problems brewing up north.

  27. Riccardo on 25th July 2013 11:56 pm

    People are seeking social harmony in Australia, but how have we earned it? Even Switzerland was on the verge if civil war in the 1860s. You have to earn this peace, it doesn’t come naturally.

    The best thing Rudd could do is call everyones bluff.

    1. Cut down a forest of paper govt documents, deliver them by the containerload to Fairfax and News Ltd and drown them in govt scandal. Overload them with information.

    2. Use QT in parliament to answer short, curt replies with no spin, let the opposition run out f puff by not making an issue if their topics.

    3. Never ever refer to the Libs as the opposition. Call the Greens or Katter or someone. Ignore the LNP.

Comments are closed.