June 18, 2011 12:00AM
IS Australia in danger of becoming perceived as an unpredictable dark zone, in foreign policy terms, by our neighbours?
A dozen years ago, every instant security expert was parroting a new pet phrase at every barbecue. We were all agog with – pause for scary music – the “arc of instability”.
Everywhere we looked along the chain of islands to our north, disaster seemed to loom like distant thunder. One result was the two big military interventions of the John Howard era: in East Timor, then in Solomon Islands. He followed this up with the Pacific Solution to asylum-seekers, sending them to processing centres in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The Australian Federal Police built a relationship with the Indonesian police that helped boost their capacity to apprehend and prosecute terrorists, capped this week with the jailing of Abu Bakar Bashir. The image this reflected was one of a self-confident, economically booming Australia boxing its weight in the immediate region, built in the Hawke-Keating era and sustained, to the surprise of many within the foreign policy elite, during the Howard-Downer years.
Today, the anxiety about the arc has been partially reversed, with the neighbours worrying about us. It is Canberra that has been approaching regional governments about asylum-seekers in a tentative, unconvincing manner, seeking their generous assistance to resolve what is primarily a domestic political challenge, for all its broader ramifications.
The neighbours know this backdrop. They follow our travails on Australia Network TV, on Radio Australia and on websites such as this newspaper’s. They know how Julia Gillard is hurting, and their own media covered Thursday’s parliamentary vote against the Malaysia solution.
As more information steadily leaks out, like oil from a dodgy engine, a pattern is repeated; first in East Timor, then Papua New Guinea, then Malaysia. With side-plays involving Solomon Islands and possibly Vanuatu, while Nauru is declared out of bounds.
Canberra has prematurely announced asylum-seeker deals, one after the other, that it has proven unable to complete.
The government has failed to treat its potential processing centre partners with the respect they seek. It has been oddly disinclined to send senior ministers to these countries to show we take seriously both the planned deals and the places where we wish to consign the asylum-seekers.
These arrangements require face-to-face meetings – they can’t be finalised by email or by phone, however hard our diplomats work to complete them. So Canberra is demonstrating an incapacity to deliver policy even with well-disposed neighbours.
There’s an opportunity cost, too. The government has for a year been occupying diplomatic space and time focusing on these centres, and with effort that might have gone instead into constructive dialogue on economic and security co-operation.
The Gillard government may soon pull off an arrangement with Malaysia, but damage has already been done there.
This embarrassing episode has also highlighted the extent of the gap between the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the government in which he serves, as he leads the charge on myriad global fronts while steering clear of helping clinch an asylum-seeker centre, and even of attempting to minimise the damage being caused to our standing in the region.
Marcus Stephen was born on October 1st, 1969 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Stephen
October 1st, 1969
10 + 1 +2+0+1+0 = 14 = his personal year (from October 1st, 2010 to October 1st, 2011) = Tolerance. Moderation.
14 year + 6 (June) = 20 = his personal month (for June 2011) = Turning point.