Emotions are running high following Indonesia’s execution by firing squad of eight convicted criminals, including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
Like many, this columnist watched the story unfold with sadness, horror and anger at the way the prisoners were treated and Indonesia’s cold refusal to seriously consider clemency for the eight executed, despite sparing another Filipina prisoner at the eleventh hour.
Powerful emotions naturally sway political leaders, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to recall the Australian ambassador for consultations is but one manifestation of that community feeling.
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Nonetheless, leaders are held to account for longer-term outcomes, not just actions taken in the heat of the moment. Mr Abbott will be mindful of this fact – when the raw sentiment settles in months ahead, it’s unlikely that relations with Jakarta will be materially changed.
Some would prefer a change – that is, for the anger and moral outrage to be parlayed into decreased trade and frostier diplomatic relations.
And yet all reports of the personal transformations of Chan and Sukumaran inside prison suggest that they would not have wished to see this tragedy used to stoke such harmful nationalistic tendencies.
But if our leaders should not further sour relations by whipping up angry nationalism, what should they do? What glimmer of a positive can be salvaged from this dark and negative saga?
For the answer, I return to an interview I conducted with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in April last year. In visiting Mr Fraser at his office, my main concern was to get his views on how Australia was being seen from abroad.
Mr Fraser, just back from an interfaith conference in Europe, told me:
We have a strategic self-interest in being seen as part of the world. From outside Australia, it looks as if the white Australia policy battles are still raging. The current [asylum seeker] policy particularly diminishes friendship and cooperation with Indonesia – that’s very damaging.
What did he mean? Far from becoming the ‘poor white trash of Asia’ as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yu once warned we would, we had become the rich unilateralists of Asia.
Viewed through the eyes of everyday Indonesians – and that, to a popular nationalist leader, is what counts – we are the country that halts beef exports overnight, assumes the right to tap the phone of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and unilaterally declares that not a single seaborne refugee will land on our shores.
It was the latter of these issues that Mr Fraser dug in on, as it was the one he saw both as the biggest humanitarian issue we face and the one most damaging to our relationship with our near neighbours.
Mr Fraser was arguing not only that refugee policy has become inhumane, but that it actually worked against our economic and strategic best interest as well.
Since 2012, for instance, both the Gillard and Abbott governments have been negotiating the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, as part of a broader free-trade agreement agenda.
Regional cooperation of this kind makes sense. Both parties benefit from increased trade, which in turn strengthens defence and security cooperation.
However, on the vital issue of seaborne refugees Australia threw regional cooperation to the wind in 2001 with its response to the Tampa crisis.
It was the capitulation of then-Opposition Leader Kim Beazley to Prime Minister John Howard’s strong-arm response to Tampa that put Australia on the course that Mr Fraser struggled to counter for the last decade of his life.
As Mr Fraser put it a year ago: “I phoned Beazley as it was happening, but it was a very short conversation. It was clear that his mind was made up.”
Labor’s failure to resist the populist notion that Australia was being invaded or that a “pipeline for terrorism” was opening up set the nation on a path of expanded mandatory detention and offshore processing of refugees – the camps where prisoners in the care of Australia have suffered degradation, lost their mental health and in some cases their lives.
Though it is hard to acknowledge during a period of high emotion, overseas observers see us holding contradictory positions on the human rights issues raised by the Chan and Sukumaran case, and those raised by Australia’s long-running response to the refugee crisis afflicting our region.
Australia has rightly protested Indonesia’s brutality and hypocrisy at being a frequent advocate for clemency when its own citizens are being beheaded in Saudi Arabia, but utterly deaf to Australia’s similar calls for the sparing of our citizens.
But when it comes to asylum seekers, it is Australia on the back foot for all but ignoring regional solutions in favour of a brutal, unilaterally imposed system of offshore-detention ‘deterrents’.
Seen from abroad, our boast that we ‘stopped the boats’ is nothing more than a pair of blinkers obscuring the fact that the boats between neighbouring nations are not stopping at all.
But as with populists abroad, both Labor and the Coalition feel safer with the current course. The latest Essential Media survey shows only 49 per cent of voters think genuine refugees arriving by sea should be allowed to stay in Australia – that is, half still think genuine refugees should be deported.
That is a popular view, but as Mr Fraser argued for years, not one that is aligned with our nation’s best interests.
Australia, as a middle power, wants a seat at the table when trade and economic policy is discussed.
We want a seat at the table when regional security and defence is discussed.
And as the tragic events surrounding Chan and Sukumaran demonstrate, we want a seat at the table on issues of human rights and justice.
Time is running out for the view that we can pick and choose on which issues we are regional players, and on which we are blinkered unilateralists.
If any positive can be drawn from the gruesome events of past days, it may be the dawning of greater understanding that we can’t be fortress Australia one day, and a beacon of light the next.