Australian self-interest through Asian eyes

Asian diplomats are too polite to tell Australians how they are really viewed from abroad. One policy area in particular is diminishing our standing.

As many Australians prepare for a holiday marking the most important Christian festival of year, it’s worth remembering that Jesus of Nazareth began life as a refugee, taken to Egypt to escape King Herod’s slaughter of male infants.

The refugee family eventually went home, so there was no need to transfer the infant to an offshore detention facility – I mean, who’d even think of doing that?

Well, we would. On Wednesday, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young announced that “the Greens will introduce a bill into the Senate preventing the transfer of babies born in Australia to offshore detention centres”.

That is just another ugly facet of Australia’s now 13-year-old hard-line approach to displaced persons within our region.

“In years to come, people will look back at the Abbott Government’s practice of locking innocent children up on remote Pacific islands and shake their heads with disbelief,” said Hanson-Young on Wednesday.

It may not take years. Other nations, including key trading partners, are already shaking their heads at Australia’s offshore processing regime.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said late last year that “UNHCR is of the view that no child, whether an unaccompanied child or within a family group, should be transferred to Nauru”.

That view seems to have been heard more clearly in China than Australia.

At this year’s human rights dialogue between China and Australia, vice-minister of foreign affairs Li Baodong said China had concerns "especially on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, the right of the children of refugees in education and other rights ... We have also asked about whether these refugees will be illegally repatriated to other countries."

While the Greens have long used moral arguments to condemn Labor’s and the Coalition’s policy, economic and strategic concerns give added weight to opprobrium from our trading partners.

Recent history shows how quickly a latent dislike of Australia can become manifest – the fury on the streets of Indonesia during the recent phone-tapping scandal was fed by negative stereotypes of Australians that stretch back through the 20th century.  

Not only are we remembered as the lucky country that ran the white Australia policy, but our political leaders of the past have (often unfairly) been seen as colonialists seeking to impose a Western order on peoples who, from their own domestic perspective, were throwing off the shackles of a colonial past.

Whatever the roots of our negative image within the region, Australia’s national interest lies in the paring away of stereotypes, not augmenting them with stories of babies flown to Pacific Island prisons.

There is no reason to think populist leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, China and elsewhere will hesitate to use Australia’s human rights record against us when it suits domestic issues of the day -- it’s the perception of the people that counts, not the accuracy of a politician’s characterisation of events.

When John Howard sent soldiers aboard the MV Tampa – the defining moment in the toughening up of refugee policy in Australia – he had already sniffed the wind, as any skilled politician would.

In a post-9/11 world, Howard tapped into deep community fears and helped build the perception that the refugee floodgates were about to open, letting in not only waves of unwelcome foreigners, but -- as Peter Reith said directly -- open up a “pipeline for terrorists".

This is what politicians do, argues economist Nicholas Gruen. In 2005 he published an article, Kim Beazley’s Tampa?, that Labor would have done well to read more closely.

What opposition leader Kim Beazley faced in the Tampa affair was a canny Prime Minister with a powerful conviction we were under attack – and Howard knew how to whip up the fear to ensure Australians agreed.

Gruen argues, still, that Beazley could have searched his soul for a similar issue – the rights of Australians abroad, for instance, exemplified by the indefinite detention of terror-suspect David Hicks – with which to whip up national fervour of his own.

Beazley did not take this road, and led the Labor party into accepting the Howard wedge on refugees – creating “deep discomfort” in the Left faction, as a Labor backbencher told me this week.  

The morality of that can be debated (I have recorded my own opinions elsewhere), but most Australians have a firm moral position either for or against offshore processing.

But in light of the recent rounds of Free Trade Agreement negotiations, the question must be asked: what have 13 years of offshore detention done for our status as a ‘middle power’ in Asian and world diplomatic circles?

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who made the historic decision to assist around 200,000 sea-borne refugees from South Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, told me this week: “We have a strategic self-interest in being seen as part of the world. From outside Australia, it looks as if the white Australia policy battles are still raging. The current policy particularly diminishes friendship and cooperation with Indonesia -- that’s very damaging.”

Also damaging is the fact that many poorer countries do more to accept asylum seekers, relative to their populations, than we do – the table below, published by the Refugee Council, shows Australia’s rankings in asylum applications and the granting of asylum.

Graph for Australian self-interest through Asian eyes

Source: Refugee Council of Australia

(Australia doesn’t make it into the top 10 on either table – its ranking is listed on the left.)

It’s worth noting that France receives 1.56 asylum applications per thousand residents, which in relative terms is 17 per cent more than Australia.

And while France has a large, vocal far-right political movement lead by Marine Le Pen (daughter of the Front National’s former leader  Jean-Marie Le Pen) that rails against a steady influx of  largely north African migrants and refugees, at the 2012 presidential election the FN won only 17.9 per cent of the primary vote. It is far from mainstream.

In Australia, the Greens currently sit on a primary vote of 17 per cent, according to the latest Nielsen poll. That has risen since last September’s federal election, a period during which Manus Island detainee Reza Barati was violently killed during a riot.

It is more than likely that the Greens are picking up voters who are dissatisfied with the Labor-Coalition unity ticket on ‘stopping the boats’ – last weekend’s capital-city protest marchers suggest a shift away from accepting ‘stop the boats’, in favour of something more like ‘deal with the regional refugees crisis’.

The shift in public opinion is profound, and linked to the moment in the 2013 election campaign when Kevin Rudd vowed to keep all boat arrivals off the mainland.

In 2010, the Essential Media survey found 63 per cent of Australians thought border protection policies were too soft. That figure has fallen to 28 per cent.

And back in 2010, only 7 per cent of voters thought the policies were too tough. That figure has now grown to 25 per cent.

The world is watching, voters are watching, and our politicians should be too -- as far as possible, through ‘international eyes’.  

While the Greens profit from the disaffection with the Labor/Coalition refugee policy, others may compete for the same harvest – the Palmer United Party has espoused a fairly whacky ‘let them all come’ policy, as long as they come by plane.

While the nation spends a long weekend celebrating the life of the world’s most famous refugee, political leaders might take time to sniff the wind again and realise we’re standing out in our region for all the wrong reasons.

As Fraser sums it up: “Whatever else our refugee policy is, it isn’t Christian.”

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