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Issue #1619      November 20, 2013

Australia as regional bully-boy

In very short order, the Abbott government has trashed relations with Indonesia and cemented Australia’s reputation for arrogance in the region. Strained ties with our nearest neighbour have been stretched to the limit in recent weeks as “Operation Sovereign Borders” gets underway. The implementation of the demagogic election promise to “turn back the boats” carrying desperate asylum seekers has deeply offended Indonesian authorities. Revelations of wire-tapping espionage operations run out of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta have worsened an already tense situation.

The lifting of the lid on Australian spying in Jakarta and other regional capitals has drawn a lot of attention and comment. East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao let fly on the subject during the recent Bali Democracy Forum, attacking “powerful countries who shamelessly violate the civic rights of other countries.” The forum was held at the same venue used for the 2007 climate change negotiations, which was bugged by the US at the time of the haggling.

At the time of writing it was revealed that the Australian Signals Directorate has been listening in to the Indonesian President’s personal mobile phone.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop postponed a press conference due to be held in conjunction with the Forum. Abbott government figures are running scared of the Indonesian press who have been giving voice to the people’s concerns for the sovereignty of their country wrested, as it was, from colonial powers after centuries of struggle. Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa said that the official Australian stance of neither confirming nor denying the spooking was not good enough.

Abbott has dismissed media questions about the seriousness of the wire-tapping scandal. He insists all countries gather information about one another and that, if it is happening, Australian authorities would only use it for good ends. The assumption he would like people to make is that the intelligence being gathered is used to foil terrorists and people smugglers. The Indonesians are not inclined to believe him.

“We are currently experiencing the highest levels of training and exercising between Australian and Indonesian defence forces in the past 15 years,” a spokeswoman for Defence Minister David Johnston said in another effort to brighten public perceptions of the diplomatic embarrassment. Increased military involvement is irrelevant to the spat developing between the two countries. It is part of the US military’s “Pivot” to the region designed to contain the growing influence of China. Australia and Indonesia are both very junior partners in those plans and governments can be guaranteed to do as they are told in pursuit of US ambitions in the Asia-Pacific.

In the meantime, media reports have been dominated by the issue of boat arrivals. The government has sought to justify the secrecy surrounding the efforts to turn them back, claiming that it would be improper to comment on “operational matters”. Abbott said he was not about to provide “a shipping news service to people smugglers.” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison recently announced that Operation Sovereign Borders Commander General Angus Campbell will no longer be present for the entire weekly briefing. Nothing is going to be left to chance in selling the “success story” of the Operation. Arrivals are claimed to be down by around 75 percent since the offensive began in September.

Labor has avoided the moral high ground on the issue. Bill Shorten insists the dip in arrival numbers is due to the Rudd government’s cruel deterrent known as the PNG Solution. Labor is honing in on Abbott’s lack of transparency on this and several other electorally sensitive issues.

Boat numbers are also in dispute between the Australian and Indonesian governments. Abbott and Morrison are clearly frustrated that Indonesian authorities aren’t keen to cooperate with “Operation Sovereign Borders”. They needn’t look surprised – Indonesian officials made their attitudes plain during the election campaign when the Coalition was making its unilateral pronouncements on how the burden of the global refugee crisis was going to be shunted elsewhere. Turning back the boats, buying them back from their Indonesian owners and sending Australian police to a foreign jurisdiction in pursuit of people smugglers was about as insulting as you could get in foreign policy terms.

Morrison broke secrecy recently to claim there had been four requests to Indonesia to accept boats back to its ports and that only two had been accepted. The Indonesians insist there have been six requests and that three had been okayed. The most reported of the incidents involved a boat carrying 63 asylum seekers intercepted near Christmas Island but still in the Indonesian search and rescue zone.

The vessel was intercepted by HMAS Ballarat which was taking part in Operation Resolute. The refusal by the Indonesians obliged Australian authorities to transfer the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.

The Coalition is betting that its pandering to noisy xenophobic elements in the Australian community is worth the embarrassment and damage being done to relationships in the region. The workings of foreign policy are becoming increasingly secret and militarised. Abbott has no mandate for this. The majority of the Australian people need to move quickly from simply being appalled to being active on the crucial issue of asylum seekers.

Next article – Editorial – Glass ceilings and concrete floors

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