Squandering our diplomatic savings

24 January 2014

Each year 2,500 leaders from around the world come together to discuss pressing global issues at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, This A-list offers the opportunity for a small number of privileged heads of country to press the flesh and earn economic and political gains for their country. Tony Abbot is currently in Davos, and has the chance to exercise Australia's diplomatic muscle as he tries to lay the groundwork for Australia's chairmanship of the G20, which will take place in Brisbane in November.

However, it is hard to imagine that Tony Abbot will be effective in the international arena when he and his government have failed at exercising suitable diplomacy right here in the Asia Pacific. What makes this failure all the more disturbing is that it is linked to an issue that already puts Australia in a poor international and regional light - the embarrassing manner in which the current government has treated asylum seekers who try to come to Australia by boat. Putting aside the issue of morality, recent events have shown that policies such as pushing boats back to Indonesia and exporting Australia's protection obligations to Nauru risk draining Australia of its regional heft.

Earlier this week, the government of Indonesia rightly objected to Australia's breach of Indonesia's territorial integrity, when the Australian Navy crossed into Indonesian waters in order to turn back boats of asylum seekers. Ironically, the operation was named "Operation Sovereign Borders." The Australian government issued a formal apology - a good indication of the severity of the breach - but the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has dismissed the apology and said that Australia's claim of inadvertent action is 'unacceptable.'

Is this where Australia wants to push its luck with Indonesia, a critical regional partner, a key member of the G20, and the world's fourth most populous country? Would it not be advisable for Australia to improve the already strained relationship with Indonesia, so that the dwindling goodwill between the two countries could be used to leverage other issues of importance to Australia, such as trade relations and combating terrorism?

Meanwhile, Nauru has just deported its only magistrate, Peter Law, and cancelled the visa of its Chief Justice, Geoffrey Eames, both Australian citizens. When our close and poorer neighbour has experienced such a 'debacle', as Peter Law has called it, one would imagine that Australia might wield some soft power and apply pressure to the Nauru President to cease using politics in judicial matters. Instead, Australia is scurrying to call this crisis of justice an internal issue, all because Australia has farmed out its international humanitarian obligations to Nauru by shipping asylum seekers there for refugee determination decisions.

Imagine a high school student who attends a privileged private school and has every reason to succeed, but who loses the faith of the school administrators, his teachers and his friends, just because he picks on a few younger children. That is exactly what Tony Abbott is doing to Australia. History will judge the Abbott government harshly not only for its exceptionally odious asylum seeker policies, but for the way these policies have squandered Australia's diplomatic savings in the region.

Dr Susan Banki is a Senior Lecturer in the Human Rights Program in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney and a member of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

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