Timor solution insults friends and neighbours

PEOPLE-SMUGGLING is our problem and Julia Gillard shouldn't flick it to others to fix.

JULIA Gillard's risible East Timor solution has been widely and justifiably criticised on two important grounds: because if it eventuates it will do nothing to stem the tide of people-smuggling; and because, in any event, it will never happen.

As accurate and pertinent as they are, these criticisms tend to let the Prime Minister off the hook. They give the impression this is all a piece of harmless folly that will come to nothing and therefore do no harm.

On the contrary, this proposal is already doing damage to Australia's interests. It is an egregious and unforced foreign policy error that needs to be rectified quickly.

Apart from distracting from the serious business of finding an effective policy to combat people-smuggling, the East Timor solution has already cruelled the foreign policy pitch for Gillard. The PM has damaged important relationships and risks doing lasting harm unless she retreats expeditiously and unambiguously.

There is no doubt Gillard's desire to do something on this issue was prompted by domestic political pressures.

With Labor's weakening of our border-protection regime triggering increased boat arrivals, Gillard couldn't go to the election trumpeting the status quo.

She is not the first early-term Prime Minister to make foreign policy errors by pursuing domestic political goals. The worry is she does not yet understand the seriousness of the offence and therefore risks reoffending.

She failed to consult adequately and appropriately with East Timor and, importantly, failed to consult at all with Indonesia before announcing this thought bubble.

But even those errors pale into insignificance beside the deeper lack of understanding implicit in this proposal.

Consider first the regional view of people-smuggling. It is seen as Australia's problem. The boatpeople certainly transit Malaysia and Indonesia but they do not claim asylum there. Rather, their goal is Australia.

(This, of course, gives us a clue as to whether they are true refugees or people jumping a migration queue, but that is another argument for another time.)

In short, while transit asylum-seekers create problems for Malaysia and Indonesia, they only do so because of Australia. If we were not such a lure, or if we simply took all who came, Malaysia and Indonesia would no longer have a problem.

So when we press our neighbours for regional co-operation we are, in effect, asking them to share ownership of our problem.

That is why the regional co-operation on this issue through the Bali process is jointly led by Australia and Indonesia. We provide the impetus and the money, and we encourage and facilitate Indonesia's joint leadership so that the region shares our interest in finding a solution. It is delicate and important diplomacy.

And of course it is through this painstakingly established process that any important regional proposal should have been raised.

Australian diplomats constantly talk up the associated regional threats and risks of people-smuggling, such as disease, drugs and terrorism, for two reasons. We want to remind our neighbouring governments that these transnational threats affect all regional countries and we want to help them convince their constituencies that they, too, have a stake in the issue; that they are not just doing Australia's dirty work.

Every bit of the considerable angst and odium that has been generated by the Left about Australia's tough border-protection policies has made it more difficult for our regional neighbours to be seen to co-operate with us on this issue.

In Indonesia and Malaysia it often serves some domestic political agenda to stir up resentment about allegedly racist and anti-Muslim Australian attitudes and policies. In their constituencies, Malaysian and Indonesian politicians cannot afford to be seen as the willing lapdogs to chauvinistic Australian imperatives. This is a risk that regional leaders run every time they so much as discuss people-smuggling issues with Australian leaders. Indonesia especially has no desire to own this problem. You only have to look at the stand-off last year with the Oceanic Viking and its endless parliamentary delays in passing anti-people-smuggling legislation to understand how difficult it is for Indonesia to embrace our border-protection solutions.

Yet Gillard's first significant step on this issue was effectively to handpass the problem - her problem - to the region.

By promoting a regional detention centre based in East Timor, Australia would be dumping its hottest political problem on the doorstep of an ungrateful region.

This was crude, clumsy and short-sighted.

But to understand the long-term damage this policy could deliver, we need to consider the domestic politics, particularly of Indonesia.

It is arguable that no nation's future success is more important to the long-term security of Australia than the nascent democracy of Indonesia. And for that reason there is arguably no world leader more important to Australia than the strong, sensible, moderate and democratically elected President of the Indonesian Republic, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

SBY, as we affectionately know him, was the crucial player as the co-ordinating minister for political and security affairs in 2002, enabling a joint investigation into the Bail bombings, leading to the arrest and conviction of all the key players.

As President he has encouraged deeper security, economic and social engagement between our nations.

He has done this prudently and carefully, with the sensitive co-operation of John Howard, Alexander Downer, Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith, who have all understood that he must never be seen to dance to Australia's tune.

Then in walks Gillard and, without warning, presents him with Hobson's choice: publicly snub Australia's approach on a regional detention centre or demean himself in the eyes of his people by accepting regional responsibility for Australia's people-smuggling problem.

Given this dilemma, we can expect the Indonesian President's uncomfortable obfuscation over the proposal to continue indefinitely. He'll try not to reject it or agree to it.

But he won't thank Gillard for dropping it in his lap.

Of course, the hospital handpass Gillard flicked to SBY also went to East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. This is unfortunate but, to be blunt, offending East Timor is the smaller of our problems in all of this. Then there's the opportunity cost of having this own goal dominate Gillard's first official trip as Prime Minister into the region.

A Prime Minister who, for domestic political gain, would put Yudhoyono in such a difficult situation is a Prime Minister who is poorly advised or not listening.

Sadly, we can see the latter is the case because, as Foreign Minister, former prime minister Rudd clearly knows well enough to give this proposal a very wide berth. His detachment speaks volumes.

Yudhoyono's continued authority in Indonesia, and across the region, is far more important to Australia than Gillard's domestic political comfort.

This is one extra and important reason that Gillard would do best to announce a retreat from this proposal, and delegate Rudd to travel to Dili and Jakarta to repair the damage.

Chris Kenny is a journalist, author and political adviser who served as chief of staff to Coalition foreign minister Alexander Downer.

source: The Australian

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