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FIVE YEARS OF FOREIGN POLICY UNDER THE HOWARD GOVERNMENT
by K M RUDD, MP - CHAIRMAN FEDERAL
PARLIAMENTARY LABOR PARTY
POLICY COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL SECURITY AND TRADE
ASIALINK CIRCLE- SYDNEY CHAPTER
SYDNEY - 17 OCTOBER 2000
Last month we celebrated the first anniversary of the proclamation of the Howard Doctrine - this government's self-styled, albeit short-lived, revolution in the overall conduct of Australian foreign policy.
The Howard Doctrine was announced as a blueprint for Australia's future engagement of Asia; but it became, at least in the eyes of the region, a blueprint for Australia's future disengagement from Asia.
Surprisingly, the passage of this most significant of anniversaries appears to have passed almost without comment. And for a government much given to the celebration of its various milestones in office, there has been an equally conspicuous silence. Why is this so?
For those who have forgotten what the Howard Doctrine is (or was), let me remind you by quoting from its primary source document, the Prime Minister's famous interview with The Bulletin magazine of 28 September 1999. It was an interview given to that magazine's Fred Brenchley. It was an interview given in what most have subsequently agreed was a fit of Prime Ministerial hubris immediately following the conclusion of the first phase of the Australian military operation in East Timor.
As The Bulletin noted, "Prime Minister John Howard believes East Timor marks a turning point in Australia's external relations, not just with Indonesia but with the entire region to our north. He has told The Bulletin how Australia's foreign and security policies are to be re-cast. The Howard Doctrine - the PM himself embraces the term - sees Australia acting in a sort of 'deputy' peacekeeping capacity in our region to the global policeman role of the US. East Timor shows Australia as a medium sized, economically strong, regional power leading a peacekeeping force with other regional nations, and the US acting as 'lender of last resort'. Australia, says Howard, has a responsibility within its region to do things 'above and beyond', bringing into play its unique characteristics as a western country in Asia but with strong links to North America. East Timor peacekeeping shows Australia playing an 'influential, constructive and decisive role in the affairs of the region'."
The Bulletin interview continued: "Overturning what he sees as the Keating-Hawke attempt to make Australia 'much like the countries in the region', Howard sees East Timor demonstrating Australia's strengths via its distinctive characteristics. The Howard Doctrine will put less emphasis on 'special relations' in the region." ... "Casting back to the Keating period, he says; we looked as though we were knocking on their door saying 'please let us in' instead of realising we were always somebody they would want to have in because of our particular strength, and that (now) has been demonstrated."
So rather than 'special relationships' or 'knocking on the door', what did the Prime Minister offer as an alternative: "Howard embraces the 'deputy' concept, and points out that Australia has performed that regional role in East Timor in a way that could not be done in Europe. In the Balkans conflict ultimately there has to be 'massive American involvement'. 'It is a very interesting strategic parallel', he says, 'obviously there are some differences between the Balkans and East Timor, but it is still nonetheless a parallel that is worth making.'"
Move over Talleyrand, Clausewitz, and Kissinger. Enter John Howard, diplomatist and strategist extraordinaire. At last, for those who have been wondering, we have the definitive differentiation between Dubrovnik and Dili.
Leaving aside the Prime Minister's curious observations about the Balkans, let us recapitulate the core concepts of the doctrine to which the Prime Minister, for a time at least, was pleased to give his name. There appear to be three central elements:
When the Brenchley story broke, it was followed by a day or two of half-hearted defence by Prime Ministerial advisors. There were dark references as to whether or not the journalist had quite got the story right. But following a fusillade of reaction from around the region (not to mention the foreign policy community of this country as well) the Howard doctrine, within a week, was allowed quietly to sink without trace.
Significance of the Howard Doctrine
So twelve months down the track, why am I seeking to exhume it from its well-deserved grave. Surely Prime Ministers should be allowed just a little bit of political hubris - however ill-conceived in policy terms the expression of that hubris might have been. After all East Timor proved in the end to be a remarkably successful foreign and defence policy enterprise. So why don't we just give the guy a break?
The Howard Doctrine has a resonance over and above any regional reaction to the substance of Australia's military engagement in East Timor.
Beyond Indonesia, there had been a remarkable degree of regional acceptance of the rationale for Australia's troop deployment. The problem for Australia was the undisguised triumphalism of the Brenchley interview - a gratuitous "rubbing their noses in it," all the more inexplicable because Indonesia was in transition to a post-New Order democratic government.
There are therefore several reasons why we can't just consign the entire episode of the Howard doctrine safely to history. The first is that while many people in this country may have forgotten about it, the rest of the region has not. The Howard doctrine received headline treatment right around Asia from Beijing to Bangkok to Islamabad. And without exception, the coverage was bad. Moreover, the endless commentaries and seminar discussions on the implication of the Howard doctrine have continued across the region over the twelve months since then as well.
For example, I found myself in the curious position in February this year at a seminar ambitiously entitled Rebuilding the Bilateral Indonesia-Australia Relationship at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta having to defend the Prime Minister from his own Doctrine. What is that they say of diplomats being sent abroad to lie for their country!
The bottom line is that whatever the commentariat may regard as John Howard's failings as an effective communicator in Australian domestic politics, our Prime Minister single-handedly managed to 'punch through' to his regional audience (both popular and elite) with his message on the Howard Doctrine. And the 'take out message' across the neighbourhood was this: that Australia's hitherto bipartisan foreign policy of comprehensive regional engagement was at an end. And that Australia in the future saw its primary role in the region as the eyes, ears, and if necessary, the sword of the United States.
There is a second reason why I do not believe we can simply allow the saga of the Howard Doctrine simply to drift into the sands of time. That is because the Howard Doctrine has not been a single, isolated event in the overall evolution of this government's foreign policy towards the region. It is, regrettably, one of many such events. And it is the combination of these events that forms a pattern.
And a central hallmark of this pattern is a retreat from Australia's long standing policy of engagement of the region - to a new policy of differentiation from the region. In this context, the Howard Doctrine itself is merely a metaphor, albeit a striking one, a sort of shorthand descriptor of a much deeper and disturbing reality.
Disengagement from Asia is not just about the Howard doctrine.
These are the specific hallmarks of not just regional disengagement but more broadly of disengagement from critical elements of the overall architecture of the international system itself.
There are three broad theories about why the government has embarked upon such a strategy. The first is inexperience. Whilst this may have been a justifiable excuse in 1996/97 when Alexander Downer was uniquely responsible for a number of one-off foul-ups on the foreign policy front, after nearly five years at the helm, inexperience is no longer a credible explanation for the unfolding pathology of this government's overall foreign policy performance.
A second explanation is indifference. This I believe is partly credible, although that does not in any sense make it more forgivable. To simply be 'indifferent' to the foreign and regional policy implications of particular cabinet decisions taken in Canberra exclusively through the prism of domestic policy does not make those decisions any more justifiable.
So that leaves us with a third explanation which, regrettably, I have concluded is the most credible of all. And that is a deliberate calculation of narrowly conceived domestic political advantage.
And it is this thesis which I wish to advance in this lecture this evening: that this government over a period of nearly five years, in a series of calculated policy decisions, has consciously and repeatedly elected to play the domestic card of partisan political advantage to the direct detriment of this country's long term regional and international interests.
I realise of course that this is a harsh critique. Polemics is not normally my first suit. I much prefer logic. But I regret to report that after nearly five years of analysing this government's foreign policy behaviour, it is time to draw the threads together. The picture that emerges is not a pretty one.
Many of us feel passionately about this project of Australia's long-term engagement in Asia. Many of us have dedicated much of our professional lives to this task. And many have gone before us having committed much of theirs to the same end. The stakes are now too high and the interests we have too great for the foreign policy community of this country (of which this Institute is part) simply to stand idly by while this government systematically goes about shredding the nation's hard-earned regional and international credentials. It is time to take a stand.
Let us turn to the individual elements of what I have described as the government's conscious strategy of regional disengagement. I will start with Hansonism, because in many respects this is where it all began. The political rise of Pauline Hanson coincided precisely with the rise of the Howard Government in the 1996 federal election. We cannot of course blame the Howard Government for Pauline Hanson (notwithstanding the fact that she began her political life as an endorsed candidate for the Liberal Party). We can, however, be critical of the Howard Government's handling of the Hanson phenomenon once she had emerged onto the national political stage.
Much has been written about the Prime Minister's 'softly softly' response to Pauline Hanson's pronouncements on racial politics during the critical years of 1996 and 1997. Those seeking to put the kindest shade possible on the Prime Minister's motivations at the time have argued that the PM sought to minimise debate through a strategy of 'oxygen denial'.
Such an argument sits uncomfortably, however, with the Prime Minister's repeated public defence of Pauline Hanson's right to free speech and his periodic observation that there were certain things that Mrs Hanson said with which he had no particular disagreement.
It is still unclear to me just what sort of threat to Mrs Hanson's free speech (notwithstanding the continued absence of an Australian bill of rights) warranted particular Prime Ministerial intervention. Nor has it ever been made clear to the Australian public just which of Mrs Hanson's pronouncements the Prime Minister found personally appealing.
The political reality is that the government at that time (as it does today) was monitoring the national political mood through a sophisticated, accurate and expensive tracking research program. This was headed by the Liberal Party's senior pollster, Mark Textor. The product of this research provided the Prime Minister with positive proof that Pauline Hanson had indeed excited a raw nerve deep in the Australian political psyche. Tonight is not the night to explore the contours of that psyche. That is the legitimate subject of a separate address.
What is relevant to our purposes this evening, however, was the Prime Minister's acute awareness of the domestic political potency of the Hanson phenomenon. What his market research project would have told him was that the neo-racist and neo-protectionist elements of the Hanson phenomenon were capable (with deft exploitation) of continuing to fracture Labor's core working class vote. This was the constituency that had deserted Labor in droves in the 1996 election after more than a decade of the so-called evils of economic rationalism and the so called social policy excesses of multi-culturalism, Mabo, and the republic. John Howard was determined to keep that constituency hostile to Labor and one way of doing so was to selectively embrace elements of the Hanson phenomenon.
Some might ask 'what's the problem with that?' All's fair in love and war, and in politics in particular, the over-riding maxim in the struggle for day-to-day supremacy is 'take no prisoners'.
Unlike Graham Richardson, I do not subscribe to the view that politics is simply about 'whatever it takes'. There are questions of national policy damage that need to be taken into account in the midst of any crudely partisan political calculus - particularly when the concentration of that calculus is exclusively one of narrow, partisan advantage. And when the 'collateral damage' being contemplated is the national interest, including this nation's long-term standing in this region and beyond, it should give any political party significant pause. Particularly a major political party with long-standing experience of the requirements of public office.
When the cabinet documents, ministerial papers and diplomatic cables for this period are eventually released, I would be most surprised to learn whether the foreign policy damage occasioned by the Prime Minister's domestic political management of the Hanson phenomenon gave him much pause at all. It was not so much the election of Pauline Hanson herself or her maiden speech in the Commonwealth Parliament that caused the reaction from across the region. After all, minority, extremist parties have been part and parcel of the political landscape across Western Europe for decades. The central cause for regional concern was the Prime Minister's repeated failure to repudiate Hanson's views once they were expressed. Silence was interpreted, legitimately in my view, as partial consent. And when the only addition to the silence was a robust Prime Ministerial defence of the member for Oxley's right to free speech and, even worse, partial sympathy with some of the views expressed, concerns across the region about what was going on in this country's domestic political debate began to proliferate.
It is not credible for the Prime Minister to claim ignorance of the depth of regional feeling on his handling of the Hanson debate. Our own newspapers at the time carried extensive coverage of regional press reaction to the Hanson circus. Furthermore, the Prime Minister and his advisers are in daily receipt of a swathe of cables from Australian embassies in every capital city in Asia containing diplomatic analysis of local reaction, both official and popular, to what was going on in Australia at the time.
From my own travels in 1996/97, I can recall multiple conversations with my former diplomatic colleagues about the depth of regional disenchantment with the Howard's Government handling of the debate. And when ethnic Chinese children attending Australian schools became the object of verbal and other forms of abuse, elite criticism yielded to popular revulsion across the region at what was perceived as a return to traditional forms of Australian racism.
All this came to an appalling head in the July 1998 Queensland state election, where as a result of the preference exchange agreement between the Liberal Party and the One Nation party, 11 One Nation members were elected to the Queensland State Parliament. Queensland came within 76 votes in a single seat of having a tri-partite coalition government made up of the Liberal Party, the National Party and One Nation. For those who have doubts on this score, I would suggest a sober perusal of the public record of then Premier Borbidge's statements on the possibility of forming such a coalition while the count was going on. Can anyone seriously contemplate the near terminal damage that would have been done to this nation's international standing had Mr Borbidge got his way? It should be emphasised that this was fully two years before the European and broader international reaction to the election of Haider's far-right Freedom Party in Austria and its initial inclusion in a centre-right coalition government in Vienna.
The central point about the impact of Australian Prime Ministerial management of Hansonism on Australia's long-term regional and international interests is as follows: it caused at both an elite and a popular level across the region a fundamental re-appraisal of whether of not Australia had ever really been seriously committed to its stated policy of comprehensive engagement with Asia.
On this question, Australia already had significant lead in its saddle bags. Perceived as a country of white colonists in a region which for the previous five centuries had been dominated by white colonialism; a country where the white Australia policy had enjoyed bi-partisan support for nearly a century and had only been repealed a generation before; and a country whose enthusiasm for Asian engagement only appears to have really accelerated during the '80's and early '90's when Australian business concluded there was a quid to be made in what was then described as the 'east Asian economic miracle'.
We were already dealing with an Asian audience with a degree of scepticism about Australia's long-term, regional bona fides. Much, of course, had been done to address this cynicism in the 25 years from Whitlam through Fraser to Keating. And by 1996, much had been done by successive governments to entrench Australia's regional credentials.
But the soil was by no means deep - particularly given regional perceptions of Australia's past. And when you added to that what appeared to be partial prime ministerial acquiescence with the Hanson agenda, there was an almost palpable feeling across the neighbourhood that Australia in one fell swoop had returned to its traditional, pre-Whitlamite form.
At a more personal level, for many in the region, John Howard's handling of Hansonism as Prime Minister in the late '90's represented a reminder of his infamous remarks in the late '80's as leader of the Opposition on the need to reduce the levels of Asian immigration to Australia. For many in the region, therefore, on the question of Asia, John Howard already had form. In their view, the entire Hanson episode represented a recent reinforcement of a long established view of John Howard.
Again, my thesis is a simple one: John Howard, both then and now, unapologetically placed local electoral expediency above and beyond what had been our bi-partisan national project of comprehensive regional engagement.
Disengagement from Asia did not stop with Hansonism. Nor did it stop with the Howard Doctrine. Barely six months after the Howard Doctrine debacle, we had in Beijing the proclamation of the Downer Doctrine.
According to the Foreign Minister's Beijing declaration, for Australia there were now two regionalisms: one, so called 'cultural or emotional regionalism' and another so-called 'practical regionalism'. In Downer's schemata, 'cultural regionalism' is that which 'Asians' had with one another and one from which Australians were by definition permanently excluded. As for 'practical regionalism', this was the sort of regionalism Australia could have with 'Asians' because it involved such practical things as Australians making money out of Asia.
While the Downer Doctrine received scant coverage in this country, as with its predecessor, the Howard Doctrine, it was broadcast right across the region and was equally well received. It is passing strange that it did not cross the Foreign Minister's mind (or worse, perhaps it did) just how offensive his double regionalism formulation would be. It was widely interpreted, and I believe accurately, as meaning that Australians could never feel culturally comfortable with the proposition of 'Asia' and therefore they should not even try. In Downer's view, we should not really bother about comprehending the cultures of our neighbourhood because, at the end of the day, we had very little in common with them. They were all so very, very foreign. Far better that we spent our time and energy on practical things like making a quid out of the place.
As with the Howard Doctrine, the Downer Doctrine disappeared without trace within about a week. It was not one of our Foreign Minister's finer moments. But six months after its formal disappearance from the radar screen of Australian foreign policy pronouncements, once again we find that it is still resonating around the neighbourhood.
Once again, in the eyes of the region, it is seen as forming part of a broader fabric of a general policy of Australian disengagement from Asia. Once again, the government also seems to have nicely pitched to the region's historical scepticism about the depth of this country's regional bona fides.
Disengagement has also been manifested in the Howard government's attitude to APEC. APEC's principal crime against humanity seems to have been that it was invented by the Labor party and was championed by Paul Keating.
It is inconceivable that this government did not seek to use APEC to the full in developing an integrated response to the Asian financial crisis - the single, largest crisis in Asia since the Vietnam War. Keating would have leaped at the opportunity. Instead, Howard inc. Flick-passed the action to the IMF. Where was APEC - Australia's own creation - when the region needed it most? And where is APEC's credibility now that it has failed this crucial test of regional relevance?
The government's inertia on APEC, however, has not been restricted to the development of a regional response to the Asian financial crisis. On APEC's core business (that is trade liberalisation) momentum has also stalled - in part because of the absence of effective Australian political leadership. Let us be absolutely clear: the Bogor declaration (zero tariffs in developed countries by 2010 and in developing countries by 2020) was brought about by Paul Keating's determination to use APEC as an effective international vehicle for accelerating global trade liberalisation. He did so because trade liberalisation was of direct benefit to Australian industry and Australian jobs. But with Keating's demise, trade liberalisation within APEC has fallen from the front burner to the back. And, as a consequence, APEC was in no position to provide the necessary momentum to kick-start the millennium round of global trade liberalisation at the WTO Seattle meeting last November.
The cold, harsh reality is that APEC has begun to wither on the vine. This is not just the view of the commentariat. It is also the view of policy practitioners in the field. And the absence of decisive Australian leadership has been an important contributive factor.
ASEM, ASEAN Plus Three and AFTA-CER
So where are we up to in the disengagement saga? We had Hansonism in 1996/97. We have had the decline of APEC since 1997/98. We have had the Howard doctrine in 1999. And Alexander Downer's unique contribution to international relations theory through the Downer Doctrine on practical regionalism in April 2000. All, in my view, demonstrating a continuing and consistent trend - of disinterest at best and of active, deliberate disengagement at worst.
However by the year 2000, the tables began to turn on the Australian government when we found that there were a number of things that we suddenly needed from Asia.
One of those things was membership of ASEM - or the Asia Europe summit. This has been a difficult issue for governments of both political persuasions in Canberra. But whereas under Labor, Australian membership of ASEM remained a possibility, under the Coalition it has become a very remote prospect indeed. This is due in no small part to the continuing erosion of the government's regional credentials over the last several years.
However the real acid test for the Howard Government's regional credentials has been the emergence of the ASEAN plus three forum - comprised of the ten member states of ASEAN as well as China, Korea and Japan. The emergence of ASEAN plus three at the Hanoi meetings of late 1998 was in many respects a direct consequence of APEC's failure to become an effective vehicle for regional responses to the Asian financial crisis. It was in part an attempt to link the wealthiest nation in Asia (Japan) with those most directly effected by the financial crisis across south-east Asia. In many essential respects, ASEAN plus three also represented a vindication of Mahathir's east Asian economic caucus proposal of nearly a decade before - the proposal which deliberately sought to exclude Australia from the institutional machinery of the region; and a proposal which both Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating had successfully outflanked through the development of APEC.
As ASEAN plus three developed momentum during the course of 1999, Canberra appears to have remained disengaged and disinterested. So much so that when downer delivered his practical regionalism speech in Beijing in April this year, it was widely interpreted as signalling that Australia had no particular interest in being part of such culturally exclusive Asian institutions as ASEAN plus three.
However by the time of the ASEAN ministerial meeting in late July in Bangkok, the Minister appears to have executed a breathtaking policy u-turn - along the lines of 'yes, we would very much like to be included, and as soon as possible, thank you very much'. Australia was not only rebuffed, we were sent packing.
Finally, and most recently, there has been the aborted free trade agreement (FTA) between AFTA (the ASEAN free trade agreement) and CER (the closer economic relationship between Australia and New Zealand). We are told that this had been a 'done deal' at officials level. Whether or not this was the case, we now know definitively that it was killed politically by the ASEANs at the Chiang Mai meeting of early October 2000.
So what do we have by way of a scorecard on those things that this government has actually sought from the region? ASEM, ASEAN plus three, AFTA/CER. Zero out of three.
Council for the defence would argue that Malaysia has always been a problem for Australian governments, Labor and Liberal. I agree - who can ever forget Mahathir the recalcitrant? But the bottom line is that it is now far easer for Mahathir to marshal support from among the other ASEANs (as well as from beyond ASEAN) against Australian participation in the emerging institutional architecture of the region because of the rapidly deteriorating tonality of Australia's overall approach to Asian regional engagement.
Radio Australia and Australian Television International
Further evidence of the Government's disinterest in regional engagement has been its handling of Radio Australia and Australian Television International. Radio Australia has been providing short-wave radio broadcasts to the region since 1939. It has served Australia well through a series of regional crises including World War II, Korea and confrontation with Indonesia and Vietnam. And until recently it relied upon powerful transmitters at Cox Peninsula in the Northern Territory which gave Radio Australia the capacity to broadcast across continental Asia and the Pacific.
Enter the Howard government. In 1997/98, the budget for short-wave transmission of Radio Australia programs was reduced from $7 million to $2.5 million, resulting in the closure of the Cox Peninsula transmitters and relocation of transmission capacity to much smaller transmitters in Shepparton in distant Victoria. As a result, Radio Australia's transmission footprint was reduced to the eastern Indonesian archipelago and inner Melanesia. Adding insult to injury, in June this year, the Cox Peninsula transmitters were leased to Christian Vision, an evangelistic broadcasting service based in the United Kingdom. Christian Vision now has in its possession the broadcasting capacity that Radio Australia once had - as a deliberate and direct result of Government policy.
However the problem does not stop there. Radio Australia's operating budget for 1997/98 was reduced to $6.3 million from its previous budget of $13.5 million - resulting in a reduction in foreign language production staff from 144 to 68.
Under this Government, therefore, Radio Australia, Menzies' child, has suffered death by a thousand cuts. And despite recent attempts by the Government to throw $3 million in Radio Australia's direction, transmission capacity will not be significantly augmented by buying 'spot time' from spare capacity elsewhere in the world - when it happens to be available.
The same pathology is evident in the Government's handling of Australian Television International. Unlike Radio Australia, this was a Labor government initiative and commenced broadcasting in February 1993. In July 1997, the ABC announced the Seven Network would purchase the ordinary shares in ATI, at the same time the Seven Network contracted the ABC to write a special news service produced in Darwin for the semi-privatised service. Owing to resource constraints, the ABC ended its ATV news service in 1999 and for those who travelled through the region today, Australian television international consists largely of third rate Australian programming (bought on the cheap) cocktailed with American tele-evangelists for whom ATI's reach into Asia represents an expensive buy. However what any of this has to do with enhancing Australia's national engagement with Asia defies the imagination.
Not only are we disengaging from the neighbourhood in a substantive sense, we seem to be simultaneously unplugging our traditional lines of communication as well .
Teaching of Asian languages
Australia in 1994, through the Council of Australian Governments, agreed on a national Asian languages and studies strategy for Australian schools. The strategy, agreed to by the Prime Minister and premiers of the time, both Labor and Liberal, was designed to introduce a comprehensive Asian language teaching program across Australia's primary and secondary schools so that by 2010, we would begin to create through the school system a generation of Asia-literate Australians. This was to be funded on a dollar to dollar basis between the commonwealth and the states and was to build up over a twelve-year timetable as each individual year cohort was brought on stream.
Funding for this strategy commenced in 1995. Funding was frozen, however, in 1997/98 and has not moved beyond those levels since then. As a consequence, effort by the states in some cases has also started to fall away.
Strategies of this nature require long-term vision, policy rigour and funding commitment. Regrettably, once again, we seem to have got about one quarter of the way along the road and we have run into a brick wall of federal political indifference. This is a most profound shame given that the objectives of those who framed this strategy was to create a future generation of Australians linguistically and culturally comfortable in their engagement with the region of which they were part.
Refugees, Multi-culturalism, Reconciliation and the UN Human Rights Committee
There are other elements at play as well in this government's overall disengagement from its neighbourhood and its predilection to play the domestic political card at the expense of our longer-term international interest.
We have evidence of this in relation to refugees policy - including the rejection in 1997 of the UN Human rights Committee finding that Australia was in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
We have also seen it in relation to the government's failure to embrace multi-culturalism and the code language politics that continues in communicating with this country's one nation constituency.
Furthermore, there is the problem of reconciliation. Whatever the Prime Minister's internal moral and political reasoning might be, he must surely be aware that his current handling of the reconciliation issue is already causing a level of international re-appraisal - not only of Australia's race credentials, but more broadly of its credentials as a tolerant and compassionate democracy. Those caught up in the self-congratulatory hoopla of the recently concluded Sydney Olympics should read the New York Times editorial of 27 September entitled 'The Other Australia'. It did not make for flattering reading. This was not Mahathir's Malaysia speaking on his long familiar theme of Australian double standards. This was the mouthpiece of the American liberal establishment. While it seems profoundly counter-institutive to most of us who rightly regard this as one of the most tolerant societies on earth, we need to be extremely wary of allowing this country, incrementally, to become in the court of international political opinion a 21st century pariah state because of our national incapacity to deal with the reconciliation issue appropriately. The warning bells are already sounding for those who have ears to hear.
And this brings me to the final element of the disengagement equation that I wish to address this evening. Here I refer to the government's public assault last month on the integrity of the UN human rights committee system. This was an assault not so much on a regional engagement as it was an assault on key elements of the overall architecture of the international system. And it has raised eyebrows in practically every foreign ministry in Europe and beyond.
The campaign began with an announcement by Ministers Downer, Ruddock and Williams in September that the government had decided to review its commitment to the UN treaties system by, inter-alia, only agreeing to visits to Australia by UN Treaty committees and the Committee on Human Rights 'if there was a compelling reason to do so'; rejecting unwarranted requests from treaty committees seeking to delay the removal of unsuccessful asylum seekers from Australia; and not signing or ratifying the optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
It is remarkable that a country which has placed such historical store on its founding role of the United Nations organisation should now embark upon a public campaign seeking to undermine the international credibility of that same organisation. There is, of course, a place for internal reviews of the UN system to deal with the UN's many and manifest failings. But the government has plainly not embarked upon that course of action. It has sought maximum international publicity in a maximally public campaign.
Isn't the government aware of the damage this campaign can do to the UN Human Rights Committee's capacity to provide cogent international criticism of other governments where there are substantial human rights abuses? In effect what we have said through our action is that the UN currency is no longer any good. And if it is no good for Australia, why should it be regarded as being any good for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the military junta in Burma, not to mention the people's paradise in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Furthermore, what does it say to the rest of the world about our capacity to tolerate international criticism of aspects of our domestic policies? A mature society can surely cope with an occasional bit of character analysis from abroad. By contrast, the actions of the Australian government seem to be a combination of a glass jaw and a substantial dummy-spit all wrapped into one.
More insidiously, however, my view is that the government's assault on the UN once again has everything to do with their domestic political calculus. Out there in the land of conspiracy theorists, there are a number of one nation and league of rights supporters for whom the United Nations and the system of 'one world government' which it is suppose to represent is the anti-Christ incarnate. From the vantage-point of the grassy knoll, any government that takes on the evil empire that is the UN can't be all that bad. In short, the government's most recent assault on the UN has political tracking research written all over it - like so many other elements of the government's overall foreign policy performance.
Perhaps what is most disappointing of all is the involvement of the Foreign Minister in this. Foreign ministers, (irrespective of the political complexion of the government of the day, have a higher responsibility to defend our foreign interests against the inevitable inroads of domestic political pressure. Foreign ministers belonging to this tradition are very much 'keepers of the gate'. Rather than being a keeper of the gate, it seems that Foreign Minister Downer has not only swung the gate wide open but also joined the raiding party.
I realise that for some my remarks tonight may have sounded both polemical and partisan. I apologise if that has been the impression - but please do not mistake partisanship and polemics for a passionate commitment to this country's long-term interests in Asia.
I have already said that I am passionate about this project. And passionate about it because I believe it is the best means available to secure this country's long-term security, stability and prosperity. I also believe it is the best means available for securing those objectives for the region at large.
But I do not speak only on behalf of my own passion for this project. I speak on behalf of the generations of Australians who have given their blood sweat and tears to put this country's long-term relationship with our region on a stable basis - a bi-partisan basis.
Countless Australians from all sides of politics have contributed to this cause - soldiers, statesmen, diplomats, business persons and scholars. Collectively it has represented a huge individual and institutional investment over many decades. Doc Evatt, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Weary Dunlop, Stephen Fitzgerald, Ross Garnaut and countless others. There is much sunk capital in this project.
For these reasons, and for those of our national interest, as a foreign policy community we cannot simply remain silent. We must speak out. And that is why I have do so this evening.
Australian re-engagement of Asia must now begin.
And this time, for all our sakes, it must become and remain a project which is genuinely owned by both sides of the Australian political divide.
Created: 31 January 2007 4:31pm
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