Thursday, 25 July 2013
The High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea to Australia, today warned Australian politicians to observe international protocols and courtesies when discussing relations with other friendly sovereign nations and not impugn the dignity of our leaders who are attempting to assist Australia in this very complex regional and international issue of Asylum Seekers.
The PNG High Commission 24 July 2013
OK. This is getting ridiculous. It was bad enough Indonesia intervening in Australia’s domestic affairs but Papua New Guinea?!? Didn’t we own these people not so long ago? If the intervention of the Indonesians was such a shock to the political system that it was ignored by both sides until the return of the Great Destabiliser, then PNG’s intervention risks making slapping down the Australian Right a deeply disturbing regional free-for-all.
Let’s start at the basics: the key difference with Rudd’s PNG solution is not the resettlement outside Australia. It’s been somewhat forgotten, but Howard’s Nauru Solution was meant to do the same thing. Howard didn’t stand up and say “we will decide who enters this country … for a while before letting them in anyway”, both Howard and Downer were frantically looking for countries to take those held in Nauru. Yet while the War on Terror helped in regional cooperation, especially Indonesia, it didn’t help in getting countries to take Australia’s refugees (indeed given Howard’s sly linking of refugees to terrorism at the time, it probably made it worse).
Nor should it be forgotten that resettlement elsewhere was also intended for those sent to Malaysia under Gillard’s Malaysian Agreement, which specifically provided for the Australian government to cover the cost of any resettlement to a third country. In the end, the Malaysian Solution was rejected by the High Court because Australia would not even be over-seeing the processing, but leaving it to Malaysia – the problem being that Malaysia was not a signatory of the Refugee Convention, apparently for good reasons.
It’s worth being reminded what the Malaysian Solution was about given the Greens’ outrage at the PNG Solution, but continued willingness to work with the Gillard government after a Solution that was even too much for Australia’s limited legal obligations. But then the Greens are not so much worked up about principle, but what has been a desperate search to differentiate from Labor and undo some of the damage to their outsider brand from their alliance with the Gillard government.
Nevertheless the Green’s realpolitik is at least preferable to the moralising that has come from other sections of the left. This often comes in the highly annoying “we are all racists” line summed up by David Marr in the Guardian who calls the PNG solution a typical new low for Australia, even against the White Australia Policy (really?).
Such a line is both hypocritical, and ineffectual for building opposition (if that indeed is its aim). It is hypocritical because when Marr says how racist Australians are, he doesn’t include himself, of course. But nor does it display much knowledge of anyone else. Those that push this line usually believe that toughening up will be hugely popular with the appalling Australian public, with suggestions from the “smart guys” that Rudd call an election on it straight away. They must have been surprised then by the latest Newspoll, which showed that while the public approved of Rudd’s solution as an improvement in Labor’s ability to deal with refugees, it didn’t translate to any increased support.
Such moralising is also ineffectual in creating an opposition, since calling someone who disagrees a “racist” is hardly an effective start to persuading them otherwise. But then this is more a means of making the converted feel good than converting anyone else. It is to allow the righteous to publicly distance themselves from the “racist bogans” and yet behind the guise of political “action” it is streaked through with resignation about doing anything about it.
The other problem with such moralising is that generally the state tends to do it better. It was interesting to see on last Monday’s Q&A, Bill Shorten, never the most forceful advocate for his cause in this blogger’s view, starting to get some traction against a hostile audience by upping the stakes with the moral imperative of preventing deaths at sea. Even more interesting was to see Arthur Sinodinos (Howard’s Chief of Staff during the children’s overboard affair, by the way) join in with some moral imperatives of his own, especially on behalf of those refugees without the dosh to be lucky enough to afford the Trans-Timor Sea cruise.
Q&A also saw a new line that has been increasingly pursued by left and right in recent days, that of the hellish conditions in PNG to which the resettled will be subjected. Yet at least for the left, the reality of the PNG solution may lead to this line having a different consequence than intended.
One of the criticisms of the Rudd deal has been to see it as a “quick fix” and subject to a change in the PNG government. This usually ignores how the last government changed, namely through a breakdown in the most key functions of state that saw two Prime Ministers and Governor Generals contesting for legitimacy. An interesting piece in The Age highlights the tribal land arrangements still in place in PNG that challenges the idea that resettled refugees will be joining a hell-hole as being more a problem they won’t join it at all but remain a transient population.
Such a system is also likely to be an important factor in the weakness of the PNG state, something that the Rudd plan will increase Australia’s involvement in. Far from being a “quick fix” the risk might be more the opposite, namely that Australia becomes forced to increasingly intervene in PNG affairs. Complaints from the left over PNG’s treatment of women and gays will simply add to the justification for such an intervention.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that the left-right tussle over asylum seekers is increasingly belonging to the past. The right took what was originally a sovereignty issue that claimed “we will decide” and eventually morphed it into simply a series of measures like TPVs and the Pacific Solution that were supposed to be punitive enough in a “suite” but were mysteriously never even helpful on their own. The left’s opposition shifted to became a moralising one accordingly.
In reality, border control was always about the region those borders were with. As Downer has helpfully reminded us, the Howard government was fully aware of the need for regional cooperation, but conducted it in secret for appearances’ sake. “We will decide” was a phoney bit of Australian unilateralism made possible at a time of that phoney bit of US unilateralism, the War on Terror. That is now over, and the Coalition can’t decide whether to deal with the region or verbal and insult them. They had better decide quick because Rudd is intent on hitting them over the head with regional realities regardless.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 25 July 2013.Filed under International relations, Tactics, The Australian state