30 April 2015

Expecting the unexpected

When any disaster happens it is reasonable to ask: could we have foreseen this, and could we have done anything to stop it?

The deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have been disastrous for Australia. People who once disdained them have been confronted with the awful unspinnable finality and barbarity of death, and government-mandated death at that. Our search for meaning has kicked off debates over the death penalty, the criminalisation of drugs, prison as a place of rehabilitation - even quaint protocols like blindfolds, or having a spiritual advisor present, when facing execution.

All of those debates goes back at some point to public policy, requiring responses and planning and resources to be spent. The debates arising from these deaths are different from most public policy debates in this country, initiated by a government wishing to announce a solution they have already developed. There is very little engagement from public figures in these debates: policy wonks on drugs and prison reform will get a bit of airtime and bounce their ideas around until they die from lack of traction.

Yesterday there was a palpable sense that the government had let us down in some way, without any clear idea how or why. This morning, media outlets interviewed Barnaby Joyce on the issues arising from the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran. Whenever the Coalition want to introduce a red herring into public debate, they wheel out Joyce.

Hard-hitting, savvy journalists should be awake to the Joyce ruse. If they had any professional pride they would resent being played. But they aren't, and they don't: off they went, following Joyce's lead on reintroducing the death penalty here. Traditional media enjoys debates that are heated and which lead to absolutely no change that might require coverage and analysis. They are happy to spare themselves the hard work of wondering how this situation might have been handled better.

When President Widodo was elected last year, foreign policy analysts wrote vague articles about how he might not be well disposed toward Australia. Places like the Lowy Institute, fatuous commentators like Greg Sheridan, all pretended to know more than they did. Nobody seemed to foresee that he would stop taking calls from this country's government and turn a deaf ear to the very idea of clemency, not only to Chan and Sukumaran but to the mentally-ill Rodrigo Gularte.

Isn't it lazy to assert that this really be just another kerfuffle that blows over soon enough - or as with the passing of a cyclone, will the landscape be changed by the blowing-over? Was there really no way of knowing Indonesian politics would lead Australia to this desolate, unproductive place, or where we might go from here? One thing's for sure: it's a joke to say that "Indonesia's credibility is at stake".

In all the escalating calls that Something Must Be Done, all those the last-minute appeals, there was no consideration given to the public debate in Indonesia: they too have their death-penalty opponents, and their drug-policy absolutists, and there too they talk past one another. We have less clout in Asia than we imagined - we are to that continent what Tasmania is to ours.

With his blithe dismissal of Australia's feeble, ill-considered threats of diplomatic action, HM Prasetyo looks like an absolute prick - but no more so than Scott Morrison, or Eric Abetz. Populist politics can work well for governments, and for journalists who cheer them on, but when the same politics goes against them the populists squeal loudest - and journalists cover the reversals like they were unexpected, and unfair.

Nobody seemed to anticipate the fact that the executions were announced on Anzac Day, and how it was a calculated insult to Australia. I've grown up watching interviews of old diggers, when asked why they volunteered to join a world war, exclaim "I wanted to see the world!" - a sentiment echoed by members of the Bali Nine, and by me at times, and maybe even by your own self dear reader.

Foreign policy is predicated on a strict division between high matters of principle (big themes: global initiatives, multi-lateral agreements) and consular matters (petty themes: Australians breaching foreign laws); in this case, as with Peter Greste in Egypt, these supposedly parallel facets of our foreign policy collided. Could this reshape the way we conduct our foreign policy?

Nobody seemed to measure developments in Indonesia against Abbott's proposal for "Jakarta-centred foreign policy". Whatever that might mean, or have meant, it looks like yet another area of policy in which Abbott is hopelessly out of his depth but can't avoid. Waleed Aly's fourth point exonerates Abbott - but I'm not so sure. Who knows what, if anything, Abbott feels? Does the Prime Minister have no advisors - in the permanent public service or in his partisan office - who could have crafted a better message for a man who has been a spokesperson all his life, at such a time?

We need better coverage of policy because that is the only way for citizens/ voters/ taxpayers/ people to judge whether we are being governed well or badly. The press-gallery method of covering politics is bullshit: stuck fast in meaningless minutiae, too easily ambushed by 'events' which they can't understand except by being spoon-fed by those with an agenda; too easily nobbled.

When the traditional media act all surprised at foreseeable events it isn't thrilling hype - it's boring, and robs us of the ability to seek out better policy, and to hold policy-makers to account. It does traditional media no favours either.

Jonathan Green attempts to draw false equivalence between traditional media - which has a tradition of restraint and in-depth consideration of complex issues - and social media, which doesn't, and which (especially in the case of Twitter) is constrained by space issues. Social media is not obliged to pick up the dropped baton of well-informed, nuanced information about complex issues. It is out of control because it was never under anyone's control, something that can't be said of the top-down empires of traditional media. Perhaps Green's implication is all too accurate (reinforced by Mr Denmore) that we cannot reasonably expect traditional media to lift their game.

A badly-informed populace is something journalists should take less delight and bemusement in than they do. Brigid Delaney probably consumes more Australian media than anyone, yet she was surprised by the outcome in a way that no well-read person should be. It is proof that journalism, and all the resources devoted to it (including legal protections and feather-bedding in places like the press gallery) has failed, and failures have no excuse sneering at those no better than they.

Chan, Sukumaran and the other members of the 'Bali Nine' were arrested in 2006. We've been through three Prime Ministers since then, and Indonesia has changed President. There are wider issues about what our foreign policy even is, and how it is developed and executed - and the way it is reported, and the role foreign policy plays in the narrative over whether the incumbents govern us well or badly.

That said, what does democratic input in this area look like? No country manages its foreign policy on the basis of populism and democratic will - it is largely an elite preoccupation, one that tends to change little with political complexion. Policy-makers don't have the political tools to engage the public, especially where security agencies get involved. Journalists are easily fobbed off with the "operational matters" thing, especially with recent legislation against disclosure.

While policies themselves will come under less and less scrutiny, the results of half-baked policy will become increasingly clear. Debates over big issues will go on in different media and call for public resources. When previously trusted sources of information on public policy (traditional media and what are now major parties) fail, people will have to pick up the slack - but how, and with what? That's the challenge of our age. Spokespeople and their bemused observers overestimate their ability even to describe the challenge, let alone meet it.


  1. Does the Prime Minister have no advisors - in the permanent public service or in his partisan office.

    His partisan office will never take the chance of upsetting him, and the PPS has been eviscerated. So the simple answer is - No!

  2. You have said it all again Andrew.

    You must feel as if you are banging your head on your old Remington Rand.

    Chris Graham at New Matilda has an interesting account of pertinent agreements between Australia and Indonesia since the time of Menzies. He suggests that the execution of the two young Australians was pre-ordained by these agreements.

    When The performing seal Barnaby Joyce lumbered on to a big striped ball and tossed a red herring at the gallery the other day, I groaned aloud. Off they went with that smelly offering, so grateful to receive it.

    Good one Barnaby.

    No wonder we have no clear understanding of where this country is going. I think the government spends all its time in a huddle thinking up distractions: death penalty alarums, onion-eating, so-called gaffes a-plenty. Do they practise their 'concerned looks' before a mirror before they make their prepared statements?

    What a pantomime.

    One thing though, for all the talk about The Relationship we should remind ourselves that Indonesia has been deaf to the entreaties of other nations and has executed other nationalities apart from two Australians and intends to kill others.

    In my opinion it is difficult to make the case put forward by Kevin Andrews that this was a deliberate snub to Australia. Another red herring perhaps? Keep the focus on Indonesia.

  3. I don't feel able to make meaningful philosophical or moral comment on the executions in Indonesia except to point out that our buddies in the US, Singapore and China routinely execute their criminals without much fuss from us.

    I do know that we would have much more clout with our anti-death penalty rhetoric if we had a tradition of making official representations against the death penalty as a matter of national policy. I should imagine that our protestations smack of selectivity to the Indonesians.

    I also find it disturbing (though given the players, not surprising) that our government seemingly had no coherent plan of action for responding to the executions. Its not as if it was a surprise.

    Your comment about no country managing its foreign policy on the basis of populism and democratic will explains Abbott's evident discomfort (what? No stunts appropriate?) and the weird mixed-messages given by statements that it will be business as usual but, look, we're taking our ambassador back, see?

    Or do they actually have a narrative that our press denizens have not reported?