30 October 2009

The slow tsunami

Conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, amongst other places, will see cause thousands of people to seek better lives elsewhere. The Australian government should be more proactive in addressing this problem.

When the tsunami struck in 2005 the then Australian government was extraordinarily generous to stricken nations and communities. It's not a snark against the Howard government to suggest that it was proactive policy: the more it could do to stabilise those communities the less likely any transmigration would occur, and thus it was less likely that Australia would be besieged with migration and asylum applications. It seems to have worked (in a national-policy sense rather than a party-political sense): the Howard government went to the 2007 election claiming responsibility for having stemmed a flow of asylum-seekers and refugees.

What has to happen now is the recognition that it is in Australia's foreign policy interest to do all it can to avoid, minimise and resolve conflicts that cause social displacement.

If Tamils believe they can no longer live in Sri Lanka after the defeat of Tamil Eelam, as appears to be the case, this is a foreign policy issue for Australia.

It's one thing for Australians to participate in military action with allied forces and what passes for the national government within Afghanistan; but there is an additional and distinct interest for Australia to limit emigration from the AfPak region. The Howard government was wrong to close the immigration desk at the Australian Embassy in Islamabad, but it was also wrong to limit it to a passive administrative role, waiting for applications. Instead, a role exists there for a proactive person, working with local communities and international agencies, to limit the number of people who feel unable to live in their own country and compelled to seek refuge/ asylum elsewhere.

Rather than reacting to events and displaying the limited focus that might have made him an effective staffer, Stephen Smith should be proactive and start wading in to these disputes. Backbench MPs seeking either promotion or a post-retirement diplomatic post should start volunteering to act as emissaries on the ground, in much the same role that Richard Holbrooke plays on behalf of the US government.

Such a role would involve tough and dirty work though, dangerous but hopefully not thankless, which may explain why nobody appears to have put their hand up for it. The sort of role that Alexander Downer is playing in Cyprus is a model for what could happen here.

This isn't about Australia being a global do-gooder; it's about solving a problem for Australia in a way that minimises cost to Australia.

This isn't about being a global cynic either, just focusing on stopping the outflow of refugees/ asylum-seekers (as with Rear Admiral Thomas' trip to Sri Lanka). A government responsible for war and social dislocation on a mass scale can hardly be relied upon to cut a deal to block the reffos (short of slaughtering them, perhaps).

Australian foreign policy should be about maintaining strong relationships with stable countries in our region; a country with mass social dislocation is not stable and incapable of providing much in the way of trade, pro-Australia votes in international NGOs, or anything else really.

There is a increasing understanding that the problems of our neighbours are our problems too, and that we need not consider ourselves obliged to sit and wait until the problem ends up within our borders, however they might be defined. The fact that there are thousands upon thousands of people throughout the world who'd like to come here, more people than we feel we can accommodate in a short time; that is our problem. Countries like Indonesia have their own refugee problems. Countries like Australia can do the hair-shirt rhetoric of "we decide who comes to this country" (this is what John Howard will most be remembered for in fifty years' time - discuss), but we need rhetoric to resolve complex social and international issues.

Far from being nakedly self-interested in seeking to solve displacement problems before they hit our shores, and without pretending to have the means to enforce "gunboat diplomacy", Australia could develop a reputation for helping bring about practical solutions to problems that cause social and political dislocation throughout the Asia-Pacific. We can overcome perceptions of self-centredness or blithe racism through ongoing, active on-the-ground diplomacy, practical action to prevent exoduses.

If we have to build a school here or a hospital there, this is better than having to build detention centres here.

This is the kind of foreign policy we could have if we didn't have such muppets, like Smith and Bishop, running the country's foreign policy. It's what could happen if Rudd wasn't so starstruck by bit-part acting in big-power politics (which is part of foreign policy, but need not be all of it).

This sort of engagement would also work its way through other areas of society and help avoid ignorant nonsense like this. Our options ought not be limited to one poorly thought out and morally expensive policy versus another. It is not so appalling being an Indonesian, or a Sri Lankan for that matter - people locked up on Christmas Island don't have the option of showing how well they could integrate with the Australian community, until they are dumped in it following successful "processing". The whiteness thing may be fairly levelled against Howard but it seems irrelevant when levelled against Rudd.

I agree that the distinction between people who arrive by boat and those who arrive by other means is bogus. Frankly, I would like to see "plane people" sent to detention centres to mix it with genuine refugees/ asylum-seekers in order to get them past their self-indulgence. I would like to see refugees/ asylum-seekers "earn their keep" by doing the sort of agricultural work Australians seem reluctant to do. You may say I'm a dreamer, etc.

1 comment:

  1. Great to read the interlink of immigration policy with foreign policy/overseas development assistance (ODA) policy.

    If ODA policy was formed on a platform recognising 'the problems (and opportunities) of our neigbours are our problems (and opportunites) too we would have a very different policy on both immigration and overseas development assistance (ODA).

    This viewpoint could easily be extrapolated to Trade, Defence and Climate policy as well!

    The current policy priorities on each reveal the nature of the current disproportioned incentives for policy makers but I'm not ready to believe that the electorate would immediately dismiss an argument that increased ODA expenditure was a responsible and appropriate response to the 'asylum seeker' debate; and there's something in it for everyone! The Nationalists get the 'enlightened, benevolent self-interest' effect of ODA and management of the 'push factors' and Moralists get the increased attention to the very real dilemas of people in conflict and poverty neigbourhoods. Parliamentary debate on this approach would surely be very revealing of the partisan incentives in a way that the tougher/more humanitarian debates is not.

    Hope there's to be more discussion that fleshes out this approach further. I think this thinking can bring about some solutions that aren't possible using the current policy framing.