Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dealing with the Region

It sometimes seems that the nost significant differences between people - even those who've committed their lives to politics - often seem to revolve around the way individuals percieve the world. Lindsay Tanner has always appeared to have a very good handle on the way the world works. His departure from parliament will be a significant loss . . .


Canberra Times, Saturday 10 July 2010

When Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner were younger, much younger, they were inter-factional enemies in a bitter world of left-wing politics that swirled around the universities and inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. They competed against each other for preselection and well-sourced rumours later spread that Tanner had also blocked Gillard's attempt to win a spot in the Senate.

Later, of course, Gillard won the safe-Labor seat of Lalor and the rest is history. But remember all those stories about the ‘gang of four’; Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner? That’s just creative mythology, because it was really more a gang of three-and-a-half. Tanner’s political career well deserved the eulogies he received when he announced his intention to retire to a farm in the country – it’s just a pity his own side wouldn’t let him accomplish half of the vital reform he was so keen to introduce. As we saw when it came to the issue of dealing with climate change, Tanner found himself overruled time and time again. He’d advocated actually doing something to take action against global warming, perhaps by imposing a tax on polluters. Gillard, on the other hand, was quite happy just to leave Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme hanging where it was: in some strange limbo, floating ethereally like a zombie of the netherworld as it waited to be brought back to life. Everyone was just supposed to ignore the issue, tip-toeing around the cadaver as if it wasn’t there. Implementing any scheme to reduce emissions was postponed until some kind of ‘community consensus’ was achieved. Presumably Gillard thinks this will occur when the earth is irrefutably heating, the coalition is again in power, or a fairy waves her magic wand; it’s difficult to know which event might occur first.
But the old disagreements are not important to this story, it’s about the way people think the world works. Everyone knows that no divisions are quite as deep as those between people who are both on the same side and ideologically committed to the same cause. These people squabble about tactics, or the way they’ll get to their promised land, and that’s where Gillard and Tanner fell out. They believed ‘power’ resided in different places.
Tanner has explained his view of the way the world works in a number of books and articles. At the risk of oversimplification, like Gillard he believes in social justice and economic equality; but he was happy to put a tax on carbon production and use this to affect the choices that individual people made. Gillard, however, endorsed some kind of grandiose scheme that ignored the actions of individuals and established a maximum nationwide quota of emissions which would then be exchanged between polluters as part of a complex trading mechanism – think dollars and lawyers. Tanner privileges the role of the individual: Gillard, as befits a Prime Minister, emphasises the role of the state.
Both methods attempt to achieve the same thing, but the differences are revealing. This is the reason Gillard’s come to grief attempting to stitch together a ‘Timorese solution’ for her refugee problem. (Although it’s worth noting that, because of its location to the east of the Wallace Line, some people believe Timor’s actually in the Pacific, so perhaps it is just a slight variation of John Howard’s idea.) The new PM fell into Kevin Rudd's old trap of believing that only leaders can forge foreign policy. Gillard apparently had the idea that by picking up the phone and having a “good old chin-wag” with Jose Ramos-Horta she could somehow cut through all the crap of international negotiations to receive the hosannas of a grateful populace as she revealed her new baby. Dili would become a happy processing camp, where refugee children could laugh and play while their parents waited smilingly in line for their applications to be processed. Somehow the impoverished Timorese (who are themselves unemployed and often desperate for food) were meant to simply stand quietly by and watch as the asylum-seekers were fed, clothed and sheltered, and given opportunities to study before being quickly re-settled in the myriad of other nations that would be prepared to give them homes.

Anyone who knows a bit, even just a teeny little bit, about the region might have clicked that there’s a potential problem with this sparkling image.
But not Gillard. In her ideological world-view authority comes from the top. That's why she spoke directly to Ramos-Horta, one to one, mano-a-mano. After all, she was PM and he was the President, and isn’t that like the same thing. She was apparently sure that she could quickly nut out a solution to the complex problem that had evaded Australian governments for nearly a decade. No one bothered to inform her of the realities of power on the island and the next moment our PM was proudly announcing the ‘Gillard solution’. Which is where her problems really began.
Unfortunately, she obviously didn't bother to run her idea past either foreign affairs (which has a fair degree of expertise in these matters) or immigration (which processes asylum-seekers) before spewing forth the results of her high-level personal intervention. The idea was hailed in the Australian press, because quite naturally everyone thought the PM would have done her homework, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. It's now evident that she didn't. What makes this unforgivable is that it reinforces a particular stereotype about Australia that’s becoming increasingly evident throughout our region. Our neighbours regard Canberra’s politicians with a toxic mixture of contempt and despair.
We're rapidly becoming stereotyped as big, blundering, dopey, unsophisticated oiks that don't have a clue what's really going on. We want to pretend we’re in the big league of the G-20, the twenty largest economies of the world -- and we are, but only just. The problem is that Australia is inexcusably ignoring the little countries of our immediate region. This myopia is leading us to stumble inexcusably over the fragile web of regional relationships.

The world isn’t directed from on high, power actually comes from down below. Australia’s the biggest country in this neck of the woods. Compared to East Timor, Nauru and even Papua New Guinea we're a superpower, but ironically that makes our relationships with these small countries much trickier than they otherwise might be. If Gillard wants to stay PM let’s hope she starts learning quickly.

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