The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Without doubt, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was acting in Australia’s national interest when he decided to expel an Israeli representative from the Mossad from Australia. He was, of course, acting on the outcomes of Australian intelligence service investigations into the use of Australian passports in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The expulsion is hardly, in itself, an earth-shattering action. Australia can not be seen to simply allow foreign administrations to openly corrupt the integrity of the Australian passport as an internationally reliable identity document. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has already played down the action, which can only reasonably be regarded as level-headed and just.

Whilst Israel itself is playing down the action, of course, local representatives from the Israel lobby are mercilessly playing it up. It is as if Stephen Smith announced he was putting a price on the head of Benjamin Netanyahu. Federal Labor’s member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, announced today that he personally condemned his government’s action. Greg Sheridan pronounced the action “very poor” and “very feeble”, labelling it a “bad mistake” and “an overreaction”. John-Michael Howson, a Melbourne entertainment identity who extreme and unbalanced attitude towards Islam has already been highlighted by Media Watch, was quick to announce his disgust with the action. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop put her foot in it this afternoon by employing the diplomatically ingenious argument that everyone forges passports anyway, including the Australian Government. Bishop was forced to embarrassedly walk away from her comments this evening.

Fundamentally, this is really very, very simple. What is at stake is the integrity of the document that is used to represent Australian citizens to the world. Australia can not be seen to tolerate the manipulation of the document and its use for dubious ends.

If the folks mentioned above checked their biases at the door when considering this issue, I am certain they would reach the same conclusion. How would Danby, Howson, Sheridan and Bishop react if, say, it was reasonably believed by ASIO that the Iranian Government had used and manipulated Australian passports in a hit on a Zionist leader? Would they have a different opinion?

Or do they not care about what foreign governments do with our passports?


After managing to miss this film at the cinemas, I finally got around to hiring it on DVD yesterday evening. Based on the book of the same name, by journalist Jill Joliffe, the film elegantly traces what is held to be a more factual description of the fate of the “Balibo Five” than the official version of events, which is that the five men died in crossfire in East Timor in late 1975. According to Joliffe’s book and the film, the Balibo Five – journalists Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, and crew Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, and Brian Peters, were not merely unlucky casualties of war – but were ruthlessly and intentionally executed by invading Indonesian forces. Joliffe’s history of the incident has been corroborated by the testimony of Colonel Gatot Purwanto, who was reportedly present when the Australians were captured.

The film centres around grizzled Darwin-based journalist, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who is convinced by a young, sprightly Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) to journey with him to East Timor to cover what he fears to be an impending invasion by Indonesia. Despite some obvious reservations, East indeed agrees to go, but the fate of the Balibo Five (at the time, missing for several weeks) soon consumes his focus. The juxtaposition of the magnitude of the hundreds of thousands of deaths amongst the East Timorese population with the popular import and weight attributed to the lives of the five Australians swiftly becomes a powerful narrative thread.

LaPaglia and Isaac do a sterling job – LaPaglia as the lumbering, world-weary newcomer, and Isaac the slick, lithe local, not a little channelling Gael García Bernal’s Che Guevara. Nathan Phillips (Rennie), Damon Gameau (Shackleton), Gyton Grantley (Cunningham), Mark Leonard Winter (Stewart) and Tom Wright (Peters) give sturdy performances as the Balibo Five, and Director/Writer Robert Connolly does a wonderful job in guiding the story in such a way that the viewer really feels for all the characters, despite the succinct, workmanlike manner in which their personalities are conveyed.

It has become popular to trash Australian cinema (“why can’t we make happy films?”) in recent years, but films like this one and Samson and Delilah are undeniably world class productions. They are films with beauty, and films with meaning. In this instance, Balibo raises several prickly questions that continue to challenge the relationship between the Australian and Indonesian Governments. The Indonesian Government has affirmed frequently for its part that it does not wish to dig into old wounds that have long since healed, or more accurately, that it hopes have been forgotten. Successive Australian federal governments, fearful of the potential backlash that could ensue if they force the issue and embarrass their powerful, somewhat volatile neighbour, have tried to stay out of the debate.

It’s a shame, in this day and age, that the cold, hard truth is still so hard to come by. It’s also a shame that our relationship with Indonesia is evidently still not robust enough to prevent us from stooping to the kowtow when the going gets tough. Three cheers for Australian cinema, and Jill Joliffe, for reminding us of these painful facts.

Tall-poppy travel envy?

I noticed this evening that Australia’s desperately reputable Today Tonight program (why Matt White, why?) decided to air a story criticising the travel exploits of the Prime Minister. Personally, I am not sure what is driving this story, which has been running for some time now, or how many people out there really are concerned that Kevin Rudd is spending too much time overseas. Perhaps more than anything it is a statement about the fairly uncontroversial nature with which Rudd has lead his government so far. This is a truly petty cudgel with which to attempt to beat a government.

While it is true that Rudd has travelled more than any other Prime Minister in his first year, it’s also pretty fair to say that the crises facing the world today have demanded a significant increase in the level of interaction and dialogue between the world’s leaders. Relationships forged in face-to-face discussions are inevitably going to be stronger and more valuable than relationships based on the phone or online – and you just can’t phone in a formal meeting with a head of state, I’m sorry to say. The message that would send to peers would be that the Prime Minister does not value them personally or the people they represent.

Another common criticism stems from the so-called diplomatic ambitions of the Prime Minister. Bernard Keane from Crikey offered up just such a jibe on Today Tonight, namely that Rudd’s grand diplomatic designs on the world stage are partly to blame for the Prime Minister’s travel bill. If by this he means that the Prime Minister wants to take a proactive hand in shaping the foreign policy direction of the nation, I don’t see this as a problem. Keane and others may have been desensitised during the Howard years to the needs of the modern world of foreign policy, but Australia now has someone leading the country who has the calibre to reputably take the nation’s concerns to the bargaining tables of the world. It would quite simply be foolhardy for Rudd’s talents in this area to be wasted by keeping him at home, sad, myopic and isolated like John Howard’s Australia always was.

In short, these criticisms form a particularly thin broth; one-part rank political opportunism to two-parts tall-poppy syndrome. The sooner the nation moves on and starts arguing about political issues that actually matter, the better for all of us.

But what about Thailand?

The subcontinent is not the only part of the world in our region with a national crisis on its hands. Apart from the Mumbai terror attacks, which look set to further inflame tensions between India and Pakistan, it is perhaps easier than it should be for us to forget that Thailand is suffering quite a dramatic crisis of its own. For six days now, Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi Airport has been closed, having been seized unlawfully by anti-government demonstrators under the umbrella of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD – unofficial). Back in August, the Prime Minister’s office was taken over by the same group, and all of this after democratic elections were held in the country last December.

In an era when national security is such a hot topic that punters are forced to only take 100ml bottles of liquid on board with them on flights, sealed in little plastic bags, shouldn’t we be concerned that an entire airport has been taken over in one of our closest neighbours, by a political organisation that reportedly is seeking to remove voting rights from people through unlawful acts?

The People’s Alliance for Democracy, which is seeking to overthrow the government and completely reengineer Thailand’s fledgling democracy, seems to have been quite throughly misnamed. Diehard monarchists at heart, they certainly make the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy look like a knitting club for hippy centenarians by comparison. Andrew Walker from the Australian National University has a fairly strong view about the situation:

Dr Walker said there was no justification for the protesters’ actions.

“Their action is unreasonable and should be condemned – this is a group using force and the threat of violence to bring about overthrow of an elected government.”

I think it’s quite reasonable for people to refer to this as a terrorist attack.”

Thailand’s armed forces seem incapable or else unwilling to act to restore order. To date, at least according to his ministerial website, it does not appear that Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has issued as much as a media release on the matter. Apart from expressing frustration at the difficulties the government is facing with getting stranded Australians out of the country, it would seem the Rudd Government does not have anything to say or strong thoughts about how it can assist.

Frankly, I don’t think this is good enough. Australia should be rightly concerned if its neighbours are incapable of controlling their own civil infrastructure; infrastructure that services a substantial tourist trade with this nation and indeed that could potentially be put to nefarious use, as recent events should have burned into everyone’s minds. We need to offer the Thai government formal assistance in this matter, and demand that they bring the situation under control, with all visiting Australians returned to home soil immediately.

Mumbai ablaze

The terrible events that have unfolded in Mumbai over the past forty-eight hours serve as a reminder to us all that people dedicated to mindless acts of terror can strike potentially anywhere, at any time. My thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones, and those whose lives have been irrevocably interrupted by the fools responsible.

Despite its proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan, India has been in recent years regarded as a generally safe place for foreigners to visit, somehow a world away from its chaos-strewn neighbours. Cricket tours have proceeded without incident. No doubt many Indian expatriates have travelled back and forth, and home has felt as safe and as familiar as it always has been in the past. How does it feel now – alien, perhaps? Scores of people from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries have no doubt visited the nation’s proud financial capital in recent years. What do these people feel now, seeing the streets they walked and the landmarks they gaped at, mixed in with scenes of chaos and disorder? During my working holiday over the last year, I visited around 15 different countries, and lived the stereotypical tourist lifestyle. Seeing the images of red billowing smoke rising from the famous Taj Hotel, and hearing stories of innocent visitors struggling for their lives amidst the chaos, one could forgive the itinerant traveller for getting the feeling that it could easily have been them. It could easily have been anyone.

It confounds me to read folks like Greg Sheridan in The Australian getting on their political horses already, riding in the afterburn of these neolithic valkyries while the streets are still red with innocent blood. Sheridan namechecks Al’Qaida, that Coca-Cola of terrorist organisations, even though there is no direct link apparent at this stage between Osama’s old mates and the group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Deccan Mujahideen. Sheridan also presumes himself the mouthpiece of the attackers in his column, asserting that the attacks were intended as a message from “Terror Central” to US President Barack Obama. I am not sure which of these misrepresentations or wanton acts of hyperbole is most objectionable, but quite frankly we could do without all of it. Clear heads and a rational response is required, both on the ground in India and Pakistan and from the likes of the United States Government.

Time to go Alexei (finally?)

While I have less than a glowing view of Alexander Downer’s performance as a parliamentary representative and indeed as a Foreign Minister, I feel I should echo Senator Penny Wong’s comments on Downer’s imminent resignation from parliament today. Downer has been a member of parliament for almost 25 years; since 1984 to be precise. Assuming a basic level of faith in democracy, one would have to think that if the voters of Mayo have deigned to endorse a candidate at the polls on so many consecutive occasions, the candidate must be doing a fairly good job of representing them. I may not agree with that endorsement, but I can certainly respect it.

What I don’t really respect, on the other hand, is Downer’s fairly drawn-out loitering on the parliamentary backbenches over the past eight months, as he evidently waited for some suitably plum job opportunities to come along. It was always assumed after the election that he would leave parliament rather than stay to fight on until 2010, and Downer has certainly foreshadowed his departure quite often in recent months. I am sure that at least in part Downer has sought to shield the fragile Nelson leadership from a by-election by his hanging around, but I am afraid that really isn’t a good enough reason for him to sit around on the taxpayer’s coin like so much dead lumber waiting to be carted off on a truck somewhere.

I would like at some stage to write a more ruminative piece on Alexander Downer’s contributions to public life over the last quarter of a century; a figure of his prominence deserves as much. For the time being though, I wish him well in his new mooted role, am pleased that he is leaving Canberra, and very much glad that the foreign policy of the Commonwealth of Australia is no longer in his hands.

ELSEWHERE: Janet Albrechtsen and Jamie Walker have a bit of an up-beat political obituary of Downer in The Australian. The soon to be former Member of Mayo does seem to be leaving the door ajar for a possible future tilt at South Australian politics, and manages to make himself sound like an ass with respect to smoking laws. What part of “cancer-causing second-hand smoke” do you not get Alex?

Why is it that some despots are handled with kid gloves?

One of the most exasperating issues out there in the world of foreign policy today is what is still going on in Zimbabwe. The election that did not deliver acceptable results to the redoubtable Robert Mugabe and is now being re-run so that it does, seems to have been dragging along dishearteningly for almost longer than the U.S presidential primaries. In Mugabe, of course, we have a dictator who is doing his darnedest to subvert democratic processes in order to stay in power, terrorising his opponents and refusing to accept the voice of the people. I know that the armies of the oh-so-brave liberal interventionist West are still somewhat occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, but surely the world can do better than this:

Britain and its international allies indicated yesterday they would urge South Africa to cut off electricity supplies to Zimbabwe if Mugabe rigged the June 27 presidential runoff to stay in power.

Plans are being drawn up to persuade Zimbabwe’s allies to mount an economic blockade and diplomats are considering a ban on the children of the elite going to school in Europe if Mugabe loses the election but refuses to step down.

From what I hear from my unofficial and entirely non-existent Downing Street sources, the next planned step for Prime Minister Gordon Brown in relation to the crisis in Zimbabwe is to threaten to pull Robert Mugabe’s hair. Likewise, the “increasingly hawkish” Bush Administration reportedly plans to thwack its fist into its palm in a menacing fashion from another continent and wait quietly for Mugabe to slink away; lest it entangle itself in another military debacle with just a few months remaining on the shot clock.

Progressophobia and foreign policy

I have to confess I am a bit bewildered by Greg Sheridan’s column in The Australian today and his likening of Kevin Rudd’s foreign policy style to that of former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad. Paul Keating might have publicly expressed his disapproval in relation to Rudd’s Asian union proposal this week, but I hardly think that he would view Australia’s Prime Minister in the same light as he did Mahathir.

The following synopsis contains the gist of Sheridan’s argument:

Kevin Rudd is in danger of turning what should be his greatest strength into a serious weakness. I refer to his weird and increasingly ratty habit of announcing foreign policy initiatives of soaring ambition and utterly amorphous content on the run, half baked, with nodetail and no credible prospect of success.

If you announce twice a week that you’re going to save the world and you manifestly lack the means to give the slightest effect to your pronouncements, the world soon loses interest. The chief casualty is your credibility.

I don’t think anybody is seriously anticipating that Kevin Rudd is single-handedly going to “save the world” by throwing these proposals out there, or is even remotely attempting to. Being an international political superhero is clearly not the intention of the government in being expansive; realistically, the intention of the government is to make hay while the sun shines and try a few things that might actually serve to improve the global political scene and Australia’s corner of it. I have little doubt that some of these proposals will not actually result in meaningful improvements to the current situation that Australia finds itself in. I also have little doubt that some actually will.

In writing this column, methinks Greg Sheridan must be suffering from some form of foreign policy initiative starvation syndrome, no doubt a symptom of the hopelessly uncreative and unadventurous Howard/Downer years. Over its decade in office, the previous administration increasingly lost interest in trying bold new things and trying to “seize the day” in its policy pursuits. Comfy stagnation was rejoiced in by the government and in the mainstream media. A certain thematic routine with respect to foreign relations was established and adhered to, evolving gradually into a wholly uninspiring policy norm.

In trying to play catch-up for the last decade over the past few months, the Rudd Government can hardly be blamed for being expansive and throwing some ideas out there. With respect to foreign affairs, there are certainly a number of norms out there that the previous government established that deserve to be smashed. The progressophobia that Sheridan seems to be lamenting the loss of in his column today is one of them.

Of uranium and guestbooks

I have to admit that while I think the humble guestbook is a neat way of annotating the worth of a museum or gallery exhibition to its visitors, for whatever reason I very rarely leave a comment when I visit one. Perhaps part of the reason why is that when it comes to summarising my thoughts, I am simply unable to reduce what I think and feel to a single sentence or two. I am not sure if that is more a failing or more a virtue. It is a failing, of course, because a certain crucial aspect of the skill of using language is being succinct. The writing of folks like who make a virtue of their prolixity aside (e.g. take for example Marcel Proust), it is usually better to use ten good words rather than one-hundred sloppy words to get across what you are trying to say. On the other hand, it is a virtue, because I am sceptical of the notion that your average guestbook comment provides anything more than a virtually content-free expression of either “it was good” or “it was bad”.

It is with these thoughts in mind that as someone who writes and is a bit of an armchair student of language in public life, I thought that this comment left by Kevin Rudd in the guestbook of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was beautifully phrased:

“Let the world resolve afresh, from the ashes of this city – to work together for a common mission of peace for this Asia-Pacific century and for a world where one day nuclear weapons are no more.”

Not only does this single sentence express a clear abhorrence for nuclear weapons, but it also gracefully alludes to a point often implied but rarely talked about explicitly in the mainstream media: the spheres of power in the global political economy are set to shift quite dramatically in the coming decades. Thanks to the growing might of China and India and also the importance of Indonesia, Asia is indeed looking set to be the most dynamic and influential arena for political and economic debate amongst the nations of the world in the 21st century. The era when Europe and the United States dominated the political and economic affairs of the globe is not precisely over, but it does look set to ebb.

The statement also ties in neatly with the Prime Minister’s bold announcement for a new International Commission of Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Although the government has been criticised in the media of late for going committee and commission crazy since assuming office, there is little doubting that new frameworks for international co-operation are required in order to progress debate beyond the status quo on nuclear disarmament that currently exists. One would also hope that the government works to ensure that its position on uranium trade does not serve to fatally undermine its good will in establishing this commission. We must remember that it is easy politics to establish commissions; whether or not the government has done the right thing will depend on whether the commission achieves anything of worth. The outcome is what, at the end of the day, we should judge, not just the intention.

UPDATE: From this report, it seems that the commission’s goal will be to deliver a report to a conference of experts in the field in 2009, before serving as input to the planned 2010 review of the NPT.

Bravura from Lu Kewen

Although I’d have to do some extensive rummaging around to confirm, I dare say that few world leaders have had the gumption to criticise China’s human rights record on Chinese soil as straightforwardly as Kevin Rudd did at Beijing University yesterday. An English transcript of the full speech (which was of course delivered in Mandarin) is here, provided by The Australian, and the key passage from the speech that has no doubt got a few chins wagging in the Chinese bureaucracy is as follows:

Some have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of recent problems in Tibet. As I said in London on Sunday, I do not agree.

I believe the Olympics are important for China’s continuing engagement with the world. Australia like most other countries recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

But we also believe it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problems in Tibet. The current situation in Tibet is of concern to Australians.

We recognise the need for all parties to avoid violence and find a solution through dialogue. As a long-standing friend of China I intend to have a straightforward discussion with China’s leaders on this.

In my estimation, Rudd has played his hand forthrightly here because he feels that the political measure of the Chinese Government is within his grasp. His diplomatic experiences, and of course his strong personal relationships with people in numerous prominent positions in China are proving emboldening. If the world was casting a mold for a leader who is able to speak frankly and openly with the Chinese Government and bridge the gap between tomorrow’s superpower and the West, I don’t really think there is very much doubt that Rudd’s frame would fit it. It will be very interesting to see if the discussions that the Prime Minister now has with Chinese President Hu Jintao are impacted at all by the situation in Tibet and Rudd’s comments on the situation there. One hopes that the the two governments take this opportunity to build closer and less obfuscated ties, and that the Chinese President absorbs Lu Kewen’s comments in the spirit they were given; a tap on the shoulder from someone who wants to help.

ELSEWHERE: Of course, there’s no mention of Rudd’s concerns about Tibet in this blatantly information-washed article covering the speech from Xinhua. Truly shameful.