Monday, 24 February 2014
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