John Menadue. Pity our diplomats.

Mar 31, 2014

It is not often that our diplomats in foreign posts receive or need our sympathy in the work they do. But just think of their present plight in defending the Australian Government’s behaviour in foreign policy. What we are seeing across so many countries is alarming. With many key countries, we are skating on very thin ice – and the ice will probably crack fairly soon.

Just consider what is happening.

In our region for decades, opinion leaders and almost anyone else who knew anything about Australia scratched their heads when they realised that we had a foreign head of state. Invariably they asked themselves and others, how can this be in a country like Australia that sees its future as an independent nation in the Asian region? This cultural cringe has worsened in the last few days. We are going to have knights and dames.  How do our diplomats in the region explain this colonial nostalgia which is taking us back down a time-warp to Menzies of the 1950s? We are really making a laughing stock of ourselves. We give lip-service to the Asian Century. But knights and dames belong to the 19th Century.

The Abbott Government has cut overseas development aid by over $100 million this year and with further cuts to come. The poor of our region will be punished so that the government can fund parental leave for the wealthy. How do our diplomats explain this?

We ask Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, to take asylum seekers that we have a duty to protect and support. Cambodia is a member of ASEAN. The other members of ASEAN must be nonplussed.

We have offended the President of Indonesia in the clumsy handling of telephone tapping of his office. We add to this insult by breaching Indonesian sovereignty almost at will with our naval vessels and turn backs of asylum seekers. Scott Morrison tramples not only over the rights of asylum seekers, but also has been extremely damaging in his visits to Indonesia. On very reliable advice, I know that in Jakarta he is regarded as quite garrulous and aggressive. He shoes the same approach in Australia.  He is causing great damage. He is determined to stop the boats at any cost, including our relations with Indonesia.

The Australian Government tapped the telephones of East Timorese ministers and officials who were engaged in delicate negotiations with the Australian Government on the gas field between Australia and East Timor. The Director of ASIO, who sanctioned the tapping of the telephones in the first place when he was head of ASIS, then persuaded George Brandis to issue orders for raids on the premises of a witness and the Counsel for the East Timorese Government before the International Court. I am glad I am not a diplomat in Dili to try to explain this.

In Opposition, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison attacked the human rights record of Malaysia, and particularly ‘caning’. It caused serious damage in our relations with Malaysia.  It was wilfully and deliberately done because the Coalition did not want the Labor Government to be successful in stopping the boats. Under the rubric of concern for human rights, the Coalition sided with the Greens in bashing Malaysia.

Our relations with China have been pungently described by a frequent visitor to China as ‘f… ed’. Tony Abbott started the damage by describing Japan as Australia’s best friend in Asia. Given the long-term hostility between Japan and China it was not surprising that China was offended. Julie Bishop then added to the insult by her comments in Washington. Quite unnecessarily we sided with the Japanese against China over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. When Julie Bishop visited Beijing in December last year she was publicly chided by her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. He accused Australia of ‘jeopardising bilateral mutual trust’. He added ‘the entire Chinese society and the general public are deeply dissatisfied’. Peter Rowe, our top diplomat for North Asia, told a Senate Committee a few weeks ago that ‘I have never in 30 years encountered such rudeness’. The Chinese are clearly very angry. Our diplomats in Beijing would be wise to keep their heads down. Not surprisingly they are having difficulty arranging Tony Abbott’s visit

But wait, there is more. Last month in an exclusive in the SMH on February 24, Bianca Hall and David Wroe reported that ‘Diplomats preparing for the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva have expressed concern that Australia is working to actively undermine a push for an international enquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka because of the [Australian] Government’s eagerness to cooperate with that country’s leaders on asylum seekers’. It was reported that the US and UK officials had ‘a deep concern’ about Australia’s position.

If this serial blundering continues, we will suffer real pain. It is likely that China and Indonesia could be the ones to inflict that pain.

Spare a thought for the diplomats who have to try and repair the damage.


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