Australian Labor MP on Tampa refugees and ETimor
The mood of East Timor’s interim Foreign Minister was one of almost palpable relief: no reported violence among the 16 political parties and 1068 candidates contesting the 88 seats of the constituent assembly; and no armed incursions along East Timor’s border with the west, still home to various pro-Indonesian militia commanders.
Much of our conversation focused on the actual conduct of the ballot, including our delegation’s report on the implementation of voting procedures. Pleasantries concluded, however, and to the visible discomfort of accompanying staff from the Australian Mission, I turned the conversation to what was then the emerging role of East Timor in the possible resolution of the MV Tampa affair. Horta’s recollection of events from the previous day was remarkable:
Horta had been telephoned early on the morning of Thursday, August 30 (the actual day of the vote) by UN Administrator Sergio de Mello, to be told that de Mello had been approached by Australia to see if East Timor could assist with taking asylum seekers from the Tampa.
Horta was then asked by de Mello if he could in turn speak with Xanana Gusmao, East Timor’s declared presidential candidate and, for the interim, de facto head of state, and Mari Alkatiri, general secretary of East Timor’s dominant political party, Fretilin, to seek their support for the Australian proposal.
At this time, Horta was headed for the airport and Gusmao and Alkatiri were already on their way to different parts of the country to attend to the demands of the day. Horta nonetheless established contact with both and, after some discussion, secured their agreement.
Horta then contacted de Mello to confirm concurrence from the East Timor leadership adding that East Timor had been the beneficiary of so much humanitarian assistance in recent years, they felt obliged to offer assistance.
De Mello in turn conveyed this response to Australia.
By late afternoon/early evening of August 30, however, de Mello contacted Horta again to tell him that all bets were now off because Australia had now “unrequested” its original request.
When I asked Horta about the reasons for
the change, he could only speculate that the Australians had felt the full
weight of international embarrassment about asking such a poor country
to stand in for a rich country in the resolution of the Tampa affair.
Leaving aside the matter of East Timor’s impoverished circumstances, the monstrous insensitivity of the Australian Government disrupting the East Timorese political leadership on the very morning of the country’s first democratic elections in its history beggars belief. What madman in Alexander Downer’s office (or was it the PM’s office?) dreamt up this little foreign policy frolic in some desperate attempt to provide the PM with an exit strategy over the Tampa affair? Whoever it was should be dispatched to Nauru forthwith. Did it actually register in anyone’s consciousness in Canberra that the East Timorese may just have had a few other things on their mind on that morning in particular?
While East Timor may only represent a sidebar in the Tampa affair, it stands as a stark metaphor for the incompetent conduct of foreign policy under the Howard Government. It is parallel to the Government’s incompetent management of its bilateral relationship with Indonesia: the triumphalism of the much maligned but far from forgotten “Howard Doctrine” of late 1999; the PM’s stubborn refusal to visit Jakarta during the two years of Megawati’s vice-presidency; and now the PM’s bemused response when Megawati doesn’t pick up the telephone to help Howard out with the people smuggling issue.
This Government, in its five-year history, has demonstrated an almost congenital predisposition to conduct this nation’s foreign policy as little more than a crude extension of its domestic political market research program.
THE Tampa affair is a wake-up call about the need for long-term, durable solutions to illegal people movements to our north. Of the 13,000 illegal arrivals by boat over the past decade, 10,000 have arrived during the past five years under the Howard Government. The Department of Customs’ annual report indicates that since 1998, 136 such vessels have reached Australia. It is passing strange that the Prime Minister has not seen fit to dispatch the Australian fleet until the arrival of the 137th vessel, which just happens to be six weeks before the calling of a federal election.
A long-term solution to the problem of illegal people movements requires a three-part response: first, through the UNHCR, to secure higher refugee intakes from all participating states so that the burden is borne by not just a few; second, the restoration of a working relationship with Jakarta to ensure that people smugglers are dealt with at the source and not just in the breach; and third, a properly resourced Australian coast guard to ensure that we provide comprehensive and continuous surveillance of our 37,000km coastline, not just episodic surges of activity driven primarily by the demands of the Australian domestic political cycle.
Labor MP Kevin Rudd was a member of the all-party delegation to East Timor headed by Tim Fischer for that country’s elections.
BD: Tampa refugees - A collection of recent statements and news on the asylum seekers