Is this how a civilised country responds to the Rohingya crisis? Nope nope nope
|Rohingya migrants sit in a boat off the coast of Indonesia before being rescued on May 20. (Photo: AFP)|
By Mungo MacCallum
May 27, 2015
The Prime Minister says we mustn't, under any circumstances, encourage people smugglers. International law, the reaction of our neighbours, sheer humanity are all to be subordinated to this imperative, writes Mungo MacCallum.
Nope, nope, nope - the most negative and illiterate of all Tony Abbott's three word slogans.
His rejection of even the merest consideration of the complex, harrowing and indeed tragic plight of he Rohingya asylum seekers is more than an adolescent dismissal; it is frankly contemptuous, not only of his Australian constituency but of the wider world. It is, he says, a regional problem: presumably he regards the region as any part of earth which does not include Australia.
Many of the Europeans, already grappling with their own urgent and local issues with the boat people crisis, have expressed sympathy and a desire to help. Thailand has convened a regional conference, to which Australia will send a diplomat but not, at this stage, a minister - another calculated snub.
The nearby Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia, having initially abandoned their neighbours, are now preparing to provide at least temporary rescue and shelter. Even the United States has offered to accept some of the far-flung victims. The source country Myanmar, which absurdly pretends that people who have been there for three, four or more generations should still be regarded as Bangladeshi immigrants unworthy of citizenship or rights, has finally taken some responsibility and undertaken a rescue mission of its own.
But Abbott's only response is flat denial. We mustn't, under any circumstances, encourage people smugglers. International law and convention, the reaction of our neighbours, sheer humanity are all to be subordinated to this imperative. Indonesia rather acidly pointed out that if you are going to sign international agreements you should honour them, but Abbott is unmoved.
His only concession to compassion, if it is indeed governed by that, has been a grant of $6 million in humanitarian aid. Given that it follows a $29.5 million cut in the budget of aid to Myanmar, it can hardly be called generous; moreover, it is not clear when or even how it can be delivered, given that the government of Myanmar steadfastly refuses to allow any amelioration of the poverty and degradation of the unhappy inhabitants.
Abbott has, of course, been applauded by his hard core supporters, notably by an approving editorial in The Australian; but then, The Australian would probably cheer him on if he announced plans to pull out the fingernails of asylum seekers with red hot pincers if it would enhance what he calls border security. For more reasonable people, nope, nope, nope is simply not a sufficient answer.
And the real worry is that it is a very Abbott answer: mindless aggression in the face of a difficult problem. No defence, just attack. This is the old Abbott, the man who brought you the 2013 election and the 2014 budget. He has, it appears, reverted to type; the near death experience of last February has been forgotten in the temporary euphoria of a couple of mildly favourable polls following the well targeted handouts from a mere week ago. He has, in short, gone back to his old self and resumed the habits of a lifetime - a lifetime that has always been risky and frequently reckless.
Given Abbott's knee-jerk and unqualified policy towards the Rohingya's desperation, it looks perilously like another captain's pick - certainly the continued emphasis on the need to deter people smugglers is established government policy. But the peculiar circumstances of the current crisis in the Andaman Sea surely should require a more considered and consultative process.
A more immediate worry has been the fiasco over the idea (now canned) of holding an inquiry over the conduct of the iron ore producers in the wake of the suspicion that at least some of them had pushed up their output in a move to drive down prices and put some of their competitors - Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, but more importantly the Chinese - out of business, an idea which has caused confusion and consternation from everyone involved, and many others who have not been.
This was unashamedly a captain's call. Abbott's colleagues were nonplussed and the big iron ore producers - BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto - frankly appalled. This was a clear interference in the sacred free market, they spluttered. And some made the more salient point that it was fraught with unintended consequences: what if the inquiry found that there indeed been some kind of interference or even collusion? Would the government take action? Would it impose fines or even gaol sentences on the directors of the guilty companies? Would it consider the ultimate sanction - regulation?
The mere idea was unthinkable, and that being the case, why proceed with an inquiry in the first place? In practice, the mere resistance of the miners was sufficient to kill it off; we all knew what they could do to governments who annoyed them. And Abbott, of course, should have been perfectly aware of the futility of his thought bubbles before shooting off his mouth. But, once again, it apparently seemed like a good idea at the time - or at least a popular one, which these days for him is the same thing.
And the same can be said of his unilateral rejection of any changes to the tax lurks enjoyed by the super wealthy superannuants: not now, not ever. This is in the same category of his raft of 2013 pre-election commitments: a promise which is destined to be broken as it turns out to be simply too expensive, too damaging to fulfil. It may be a handy club to bash the Labor Party, which has already endorsed some modest reforms to its policy, and it will certainly please some of the greedier of his own backers and bankers, but is just not sustainable, either economically nor politically.
Perhaps, of course, it won't have to; the election will take care of it, and of him. In which case many will remember his years with the brief phrase: nope, nope, nope.
Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator.