No Longer a Middle Power, Australia becomes a Short Power

contorted policyAustralia announced a shift in policy saying that refugees arriving by boat will no longer be processed in Australia.  With the move to deny refugee status to people crossing the Timor Sea Australia has surrendered its hard fought for middle power mantle to become a short power.  How did this change of stature come about?

At the conclusion of World War II Australia supported the creation of the United Nations as a bulwark against conflict and chaos.  Under the leadership of Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt Australia played an important role in authoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Preamble to the Universal Declaration articulates the relationship between respect for human rights and a peaceful international order:

… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law….

Since that time Australia has slowly but surely removed domestic affronts to human rights by dismantling the White Australia policy and embracing multiculturalism.  The recognition of native title and eradication of the principle of terra nullius deepened Australia’s commitment to human rights.  Internationally, granting Papua New Guinea independence further demonstrated Australia’s commitment.

Never a major power and physically isolated from the centers of global population and economy Australia nonetheless envisioned for itself an international role as a middle power.  As a middle power Australia embraced international institutions such as the United Nations, sought multi-lateral and peaceful solutions to global problems and developed niche specialties in peacekeeping and international aid.  The oft-mentioned description of Australia punching above its weight became the sine qua non of Australian foreign policy.

Australians could look at their country with pride, taking a noble place among democracies by enshrining the values found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into law.

Unfortunately, however, the grubby world of grubby politics now dominates.  With the decision to no longer process refugees landing on Christmas Island Australia has turned its back on a proud legacy.  Now refugees coming to Christmas Island will have their cases processed while they wait in Papua New Guinea.  Further insulting the values ensconced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights those refugees will not be offered a place in Australia, but rather Papua New Guinea.

The beautiful mountains and bountiful natural resources in Papua New Guinea stand in contrast to the grinding poverty and physical adversity of the place.  Papua New Guinea already experiences difficulty in caring for its own citizens, much less refugees from far away.  Make no mistake about it this policy has the intended purpose of intimidating those who would come to Australia in this way.  Papua New Guinea, a former Australian colony, has succumbed to the policy for no other reason than keeping Australia happy.  Apparently, the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is still a colonial one – parent to child, rather than one of equals.

This is a policy aimed at the heart of Sydney’s western suburbs.  Once safe Labor seats seemed destined for the scrapheap in the coming election.  Hard-hearted voters, who are no worse off for refugee arrivals in Australia, have turned their backs on fellow human beings.  Backbench Labor MP’s have joined them so that they may continue to enjoy the fruits of their pleasant lives as elected representatives.  Meanwhile, frightened, displaced and now forlorn men and women cower in camps waiting to discover what will come of them.

Then Prime Minister Keating’s words from another time may well be applicable here:

However intractable the problems seem, we cannot resign ourselves to failure – any more than we can hide behind the contemporary version of Social Darwinism which says that to reach back for the poor and dispossessed is to risk being dragged down.

Is Australia unable to extend a helping hand to those who ask for it?  Or, is Australia simply unwilling?  Surely upholding the principles of international law and international agreements will not so heavily tax Australia that it cannot manage.  Should Australia really turn its back on people who seek help?  Perhaps this might be a time to remember Prime Minister Keating again, should Australia not ask “…how would I feel if this were done to me?”

Once a middle power, sure of what was right and proper, Australia has given way to baser impulses.  Now, Australia has contorted itself into a short power.  Bellicose language and empty threats echo across the seas, threatening would be refugees: “come if you dare, we’ll show you.”  Indeed, Australia shows us, do you like what you see?

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