Monday, 24 February 2014 

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian Government breaching their sovereignty

Lord Downer, just a few months ago

We will decide.

From happier times.

The panic about asylum seekers is primarily a panic of the political class, that politicos on the left and right continually project onto the public, but for whom polls show it remains no more than a middling concern. It is a panic out of all proportion to its real impact because asylum seekers capture two concerns that the political class has no solution for: a declining social base (Labor) and authority and “sovereignty” (the Coalition).

During the Rudd-Gillard period we saw asylum seekers become a political football between Rudd and Gillard centred on Labor’s insecurities about its lack of social base. Under the Coalition, asylum seekers are now becoming a political football over an even more sensitive issue, sovereignty.

Australia’s sovereignty has always been surprisingly uncertain for a stable, prosperous country. The concept of Australian citizenship didn’t exist until 1949, before when Australians were British subjects, a status they were to retain until, incredibly, 1984. It was also not until the 1980s that what would be considered as basic functions of any sovereign nation were sorted out: such as the closing of the last avenues to appeal to London to over-ride the Australian High Court and the ability of the UK parliament to make laws with respect to Australia.

Of course, there is one basic function of sovereignty that has still not been dealt with, the Head of State, with the last attempt going down in flames, showing if there is one thing the Australian public likes less than a free-loading family in south west London are its own politicians running a “politicians’ republic”.

The failure of the 1999 republican referendum points to what the issue of sovereignty is really about. It is preferred to be discussed via the excruciating tedium of values and “what it means to be Australian”, which generally vary between the banal, the cheesey, or the blatantly untrue, but is really only important to sociology academics and Ministers fretting about the national curriculum. The real nitty grit of sovereignty is the state of the political class, its authority and its relation to society. In Australia, that authority, normally the preserve of the right, has historically been weak. Indeed that authority has tended to rest on its negation: the conservatism of what would normally be the main challenge, the left and institutional labour, and the leading foreign power of the day

Howes’s recent speech shows that the prop from the institutional labour has gone, probably for good, and the state of the leading global power, the US, is uncertain. Economic experts like projecting the growth of China to being the leading power in 2050 etc. etc. as though a country with massive political and financial distortions will have a future in any more a straight line than its past. But what we are really talking about here is an unusual phenomenon, the precipitous political decline of the US that is running ahead of its economic decline.

As a result, the confidence of our political class is even less than before. Republicanism is off the agenda and we barely have even good old economic nationalism these days. It seems the entire focus of sovereignty and this government’s ability to “make things happen” rests on being able to stop the boats. This is not good news for those in them.

When Howard (and the SAS literally) leapt on the Tampa in August 2001, it was the act of a flailing government only just recovering from what had been record polling lows for a Coalition government. While Tampa boosted Howard’s popularity, the payoff for the government was much less and did little more than reaffirm the recovering trend from that March. The event that decisively shifted the public towards the government was, of course, the event that did the same for governments around the world, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September. 9/11 allowed Howard to slyly link national security to asylums seekers, but even here the impact was short-lived. The boost was already fading by the election campaign in November and Howard ended up with with a fairly modest 2% swing on top of what had been the worst winning vote since Federation.

It was the linking of asylum seekers to international security that gave the issue a broader resonance. When that international effect faded, so did the public concern over asylum seekers. National security was still an issue in 2004 but then discord over Hicks, Haneef, Cornelia Rau, and children behind wire, showed that the political importance terrorism and asylum seekers were fading in tandem – ending in the Lindsay leafleting farce of the 2007 campaign. By 2008, overseen by a certain vocal Riverland MP, the Coalition dropped the Pacific Solution – a period we’re not supposed to talk about now.

When asylum seekers returned as an issue it was not because the international situation had become more favourable to manage it – far from it, but now it was primarily driven by internal party considerations, more than electoral, let alone international, factors.

So the more insecure the political leadership, the harsher the treatment of asylum seekers. It’s no surprise that the harshest measures came from the most insecure government of all, the Rudd interregnum of 2013, which faced not only a competitive opposition but an incomplete coup over Rudd’s real enemies behind him.

The Coalition’s policy today is really just a continuation of that Rudd policy, both in its effectiveness and its brutality. The boat numbers started falling after its implementation in the latter half of last year and the Coalition has added little to it. Indeed for all the grand-standing the Coalition has made of turning the boats back, the very operational secrecy surrounding it pretty well undermines the deterrence it is supposed to be.

Waleed Aly is right in that the brutality of Manus is precisely what the policy was intended to do as a deterrent. But he overstates how much the government is in control. Despite what was widely seen as an effective solution, Rudd’s manoeuvres did him little electoral good. But for the Coalition, what Rudd did was to put two time bombs in it that would make life difficult for a government wanting to put the Sovereign back into our Borders.

Making sovereignty an operational issue, rather than the ethereal one of constitutional niceties and “values”, is a risky thing to do. Sovereignty is about control, and operations can get out of control, especially when it’s to do with rootless refugees drifting across territorial waters. Yet in stepping up the ante, Rudd did two things that is making life difficult for the Coalition to repeat Howard’s triumphalist claim that “we will decide”.

The first was to openly bring Indonesia into the equation. Indonesia was always there, but managed through the framework of the Bali Process that was underpinned by Indonesia’s willingness to forget about East Timor and be on the right side of the War on Terror.

A decade later, the world is very different. Indonesia is now a growing economic power in the region, there is no international framework for the government to manage relations with them on favourable terms, and East Timor memories have suddenly come back. The result is something that Australian sovereignty has never had to contend with before, a neighbouring Asian nation interfering directly into a sensitive domestic issue.

Some left commentators in Australia are still talking about Indonesia in terms of the past, as though Australia is “bullying” Indonesia. But a rising economic power needs to rearrange political relations accordingly and it is clear that Indonesia is using the Coalition’s vulnerability over its boats policy as a useful tool to change not only its relation with Australia but with the region as well.

It may be possible, for example, that a high tech Navy charged with securing the borders doesn’t actually know where they are. It may also be just as possible that such minor incursions have always been a regular occurrence, but that what has changed is Indonesia can make a big deal of them and force the Australian government to apologise. The time when Downer, Howard’s Foreign Minister during the Bali process, could tell Indonesia to pull its head in as he tried just a few months ago, seems long gone. No wonder he’s being packed off to bore the English.

Yet if Indonesia’s rising sense of sovereignty makes it difficult for the Coalition to assert Australia’s, there is also another, almost opposite problem in the government’s boat solution. As noted at the time, the danger in the PNG solution was that it integrated Australia more closely with what could be best described as a failing state.

It was little discussed in the Australian press at the time, but the effective coup in 2012 by the PNG Prime Minister O’Neill against his predecessor, Somare, while he was convalescing in a Singapore hospital, should be understood in the context of major power manoeuvrings in the region between China and the US.

China’s growing presence in the region is giving countries, even those as weak as East Timor, some negotiating room as it showed the Gillard government over the aborted plans to build a processing centre. It’s no surprise then that when O’Neill unconstitutionally took over power from a PNG government intent on “looking north”, that it was given tacit approval by the same Gillard government, which cemented relations with the O’Neill government with closer political and security ties through a revival of the constitutionally dodgy Enhanced Cooperation Program.

What Rudd’s PNG solution did was to not only increase those ties, but to now bring slightly dubious arrangements that had been kept fairly quiet to the centre stage. The very features of the agreement behind the PNG solution, such as an upfront role for Australian police on the streets of Port Moresby announced by Rudd at the time, would only be considered by an unstable state with a weak sovereignty. This does not make the ideal partner for a government that wishes to show how much control it has, as the Coalition discovered last week.

Originally Morrison leapt on the riot in the Manus detention centre and the death of one of the detainees as a law and order issue to show how “tough” the government was. What it later found out was that there was little law and order, and it had effectively been lied to by a security system it lost control over. Far from making the government seeming in control, the Manus solution is highlighting the lack of it.

The left, as would be expected, is largely treating this as a moral issue, as it seeks to make a virtue of its isolation from society by proclaiming its compassion against the racist and compassion-less rest of us. In doing so, it makes it seem that this policy is being driven by a racist public and manipulated by a government in control of the situation. Neither is true. The last six years have shown that what asylum seekers have more to be concerned about is an insecure, out of control, political class that targets the most vulnerable to make itself look in command. So should we.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 24 February 2014.

Filed under International relations, The Australian state

Tags: , ,


26 responses to “Sovereignty”

  1. F on 24th February 2014 3:16 pm

    Honestly, I’m waiting for certain members of the political class to “click” that making boats such a massive issue does Australian sovereignty(and their own credibility) no favours.

    It is affecting trade. Money. Surely the Liberals understand that?

    Probably not. Did you hear? The State owned coal loading ports in Newcastle are being sold off….so that money can be funnelled into building the “Inland railway”. Industry publications describe the move as one designed by “rail tragic’s” like former Howard minster John Anderson(and Truss is pushing for it, the Nationals are shit scared of Independents, Katter and Palmer in a swathe of seats from Toowoomba to Tamworth)

    Promises are being made by a certain fat lady about opening coal mines…..failing to notice that the coal industry is internally talking about the “winding down” of the coal industry between now and 2030. No new mines are needed, in fact there are too many now as it is.

    Also, it doesn’t look good when reports come through of Manus Island detainees being macheted to death. Shot, that’s one thing. Macheted? Not a good look at all.

  2. Daz on 24th February 2014 7:25 pm

    “Howard ended up with with a fairly modest 2% swing on top of what had been the worst winning vote since Federation”

    Largest 2pp swing to an incumbent government since 1966. And he, you know, won. “One’s enough”, as they said in the classics.


  3. The Piping Shrike on 24th February 2014 10:33 pm

    Well, swings and roundabouts. The final 50.9% vote was down there among the scrape-ins and only Gillard got a lower vote since. So let’s say, given everything, the Tampa 9/11 election victory was not “sparkling”.

  4. Dianne on 25th February 2014 6:42 am

    I agree with much you have written Shrike. However I would not be dismissive of moral concerns.

    Compassion doesn’t express what I feel about the mayhem in Manus. Far too wishy washy. I have cold-hearted rage about what has happened there.

  5. Jay Buoy on 25th February 2014 7:54 am

    So do I Dianne.. this is an issue that goes to our core as a nation.. pulling the wings off flies can only bode badly for the future..

  6. The Piping Shrike on 25th February 2014 8:44 am

    Obviously people feel moral outrage, we’re not robots. But it’s a personal and sometimes confusing thing, in my view, and not something helpful to either understand or, actually, campaign on. It’s the very personal nature of it that means people hate being told their compassion is inferior to yours.

    Also claiming that the asylum seeker issue is being driven by the moral failings of the public, is just plain wrong.

  7. ben on 25th February 2014 10:17 am

    So Pipes what do you think is a “framework”, for want of a better term, that would allow the Australian political class, Murdoch tabloids and electorate to navigate out of this horrible situation? Or in other words, what is the end game?

  8. The Piping Shrike on 25th February 2014 10:56 am

    I would have thought to lower the stakes of the importance of stopping the boats – and focus on other things – like the economy. Hence the narrative that the latest lousy Newspoll is because the government is starting to flag “tough” decisions on spending. But internal political needs may not allow it, not least as there isn’t really any solution for the economy either.

  9. Dianne on 25th February 2014 11:44 am

    I understand your argument Piping. I share your view that one cannot understand our abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers as being entirely driven by any moral failing of the nation.

    I have long believed that globalization has rendered our government impotent so they huff and puff about sovereignty to make themselves appear powerful. As if they have KONTROL.

    That said I believe this government has a symbiotic relationship with the majority of voters on the question of asylum seekers.

    That said morality is part of the mix.

    I believe the government has carefully shaped its position on asylum seekers to appeal to certain people eager to accept that position unquestioningly. A tumbleweed arrangement. On and on it rolls in a tight circle.

    It cannot be denied that some people in this country have racist feelings towards asylum seekers. Some of the on-line comments are nauseating.

    One person this week wrote enthusiastically about the smashing of thin Middle Eastern skulls and attracted appreciative comments from others, one of whom suggested sound effects.

    Is there a moral issue in the majority accepting government falsehoods about asylum seekers despite evidence to the contrary?

    Is morality involved when democratic leadership obfuscates, conceals and evades to control the situation?

    It is not as if there has not been rational and compelling evidence placed before us by people such as David Manne, Gillian Trigg and Julian Burnside.

    Those people use careful legal language, not accusing hyperbole.

    But most of us continue to parrot the government line that asylum seekers are illegal, queue jumpers who want to come here for economic reasons.

    I think morality lurks in the shadowy reasons why many people refuse to be persuaded by rational argument.

  10. Andrew Bartlett on 25th February 2014 1:12 pm

    I don’t support it as a policy, but I think the turning/towing back of boats is the key factor in halting boat arrivals. Howard did it (with less fanfare) and it was also effective (in terms of halting boat arrivals).

    Howard’s infamous “we will decide” boast (along with his “none of them will set foot in Australia”) turned out to be false, but it took 3-4 years for that to happen.

    The current Government will have the same problem in a year or two. The nonsensical idea that all of the refugees now on PNG & Nauru will be able to permanently settle in those countries will be exposed (even if politicised assessments of refugee claims reduce the proportion recognised as refugees).

    If they maintain the towback approach, those many refugees in PNG & Nauru (as well as the 1000s now detained or on Bridging Visas in Xmas Island/Australia) will become a similar damaging focus that the ever more brutalised long-term detainees became for Howard. which as you rightly point out became so severe that the Libs ended up walking away from the ‘Pacific Solution’ – something everyone, including the Libs, seems to have forgotten.

  11. ROB on 25th February 2014 2:10 pm

    In the US, the Republicans’ “bait and switch” strategy is to get lower-paid workers to vote against their interests with appeals to race, religion, guns, etc. The present government’s emphasis on asylum seekers is much the same. Abbott thinks that if he makes the public afraid of asylum seekers (and portrays himself as the strong man who can deal with the problem) the public won’t be so concerned about this government’s libertarian attacks on social welfare, workers rights, etc.
    If piping is right (that this is not a major issue among the hoi polloi) then that is a doomed strategy because voters will see through the packaging and worry about more immediate concerns.
    I strongly suspect that the Abbott Govt is going to flog this dead horse until the next election (because they know no better and really are right-wing loons) and will pay the price.

  12. Michael on 25th February 2014 3:51 pm

    I don’t think it will be asylum seekers or the Libs political agenda that will sink them. It will be their inability to solve an array of problems that neither party has solutions for. It will have more to do with letting the other side have a go. The two parties need each other because once they have both state and federal governments they soon run out of places to hide their incompetence. Victorians are slowly realising this and it will culminate in a disastrous and crippling tunnel that only the trucking sponsors really want.

  13. F on 25th February 2014 7:01 pm

    You are completely right Michael.

    It will be the budget. This budget will be very confused, because everything has been building up to cuts and now it looks as if the economy is ‘softening’ quicker than expected. As of lately, it is Queensland that should be watched. The Libs have a vast bulk of their majority in WA and Qld.

    It almost doesn’t matter what they do. What is coming has been coming for some time now.

    If I was Abbott and co I would stop talking so much about cutting, living within our means, and Australian’s being paid too much.

    Doesn’t sound good when your job is at risk, or you have been thrown onto the unemployment lines.

  14. Doug on 25th February 2014 10:06 pm

    An interesting account of the politics – but what do you do if you think that the policy is ill informed, an attempt to deny the reality of the world we live, morally unacceptable and posing a risk to a moderately open society by militarising what should be civilian run activities?

    Concern with this issue is not confined to “the left” whoever they are. That is to at least partially misread the constituencies concerned about this issue.

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  16. The Piping Shrike on 26th February 2014 10:08 am

    Not confining concern to the left, just saying there is a moralism apparent in the left response that has the potential to be counter-productive.

  17. On binaries on 26th February 2014 12:30 pm

    You make very interesting points but there are more threads to this narrative in my opinion.

  18. Andrew Bartlett on 26th February 2014 3:22 pm

    “just saying there is a moralism apparent in the left response that has the potential to be counter-productive.”

    This is the pivotal point of the whole piece and one that I very much agree with.

  19. The Piping Shrike on 26th February 2014 7:27 pm

    I suspect this is a trend that will continue though.

  20. Riccardo on 26th February 2014 11:25 pm

    Port Moresby might be in a failing state but there is one a bit to the south of there as well. its economy might hold up but the political system has lost all legitimacy.

    This decline of the political class did not come out of nowhere, it is intrinsically linked to the flawed basis for a nation state since 1901 or before.

  21. Riccardo on 26th February 2014 11:37 pm

    The right have never admitted that 1901 was not a ‘nation’ but merely the rearrangement of trade and colonial governance of six British colonies. Their talk of sovereignty was always hollow.

    And the ALP enjoyed myths that Curtin made Australia. In fact all he did was transfer the title deeds from London to Washington. Now Washington is in hock the whole political class is nervous that maybe they will have to be handed to Beijing.

    There is no real support for genuine sovereignty, as they are not willing to pay the political price. Maybe they don’t deserve, and won’t get, the seats at the international fora without the backing of great and powerful friends. Maybe defence would have to be actually funded and staffed from within the capabilities of the Australian population. Maybe 100 years of propaganda is wrong and the world is not falling over itself in love with Australia, but sees a population of people too complacent to separate itself from a cozy political duopoly, too lazy to adjust its standard of living to its terms of trade, and too gullible to avoid paying top dollar to its oligopolies.

  22. Riccardo on 26th February 2014 11:50 pm

    Remember too, Indonesia defined three countries’ identities at least.

    Their own, quite obviously.

    The Netherlands, that was finally converted from being the Texas of Europe into that cute little dope smoking, tourist friendly arty place at the heart of the European project, by the humiliating removal of its last significant colony.

    I would argue Malaysia, East Timor and PNG also to varying extents defined themselves by their relationship to Indonesia.

  23. The Piping Shrike on 27th February 2014 7:07 am

    There is an absolute difference between a weak political class and a weak state. Australia can by no stretch of the imagination be called a failed state, or even a weak one. Indeed, when we see politicians running around apologising to the military, the differences are very clear. It misses that this is about the nature of politics, not the state.

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  25. The Piping Shrike on 1st March 2014 7:15 am

    On the issue of turning back the boats, thought a fairly good summary by Hartcher on the importance of Indonesian cooperation to turn back the boats, which Howard relied on (but in secret), and which dried up for Abbott in October – a reminder that Australian “sovereignty” relies on the cooperation of another sovereign nation. So sovereign-ish, let’s say.

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