My weekly Guardian column is here:
Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?
There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.
When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.
Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.
The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.
We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.
Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.
The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.
The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.
So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.
And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.