Was there really a choice at the recent Federal Elections? The Labor Party was destined to lose government ('Oppositions don't win office, Governments lose it', as the saying goes).
On that basis the Coalition did not attempt to sell a clearly articulated program for office; they didn't have to. It is no surprise therefore that we are now being taken on a political journey derived largely in the minds of a Cabinet whose real agenda was never fully disclosed.
Yet, the Liberal Party has been fond of asserting its commitment to accountability and transparency. What you see is what you get, it is claimed. Where has that been shown to date in the management of the new Government?
First, what transparency have we witnessed in relation to refugee and asylum seekers? A weekly media conference where most questions are evaded for "operational reasons". Meanwhile those with legitimate asylum claims, as a matter of international law, are termed 'illegals' and must now be referred to as such up and down the official chain. A number continue to suffer indefinite detention while being denied an explanation for their detention apart from being alleged "security risks". This defies all basic concepts of human rights to which Australia has subscribed.
Such blatant disregard of international law has weakened any credibility Australia might otherwise have when dealing with unjust and perverse detentions of Australians abroad, as in the cases of the detained businessmen in Dubai and the Greenpeace protester in a Russian gaol. In Opposition the now Minister for Foreign Affairs showed genuine concern for cases of this nature but now, as briefed by her department, repeats the tired mantra that these are matters of domestic jurisdiction in which we don't intervene. Where is the concern for the following long-established international standard:
"It is a well established principle that a State cannot invoke its municipal legislation as a reason for avoiding its international obligations. For essentially the same reason a State, when charged with a breach of its international obligations with regard to the treatment of aliens, cannot validly plead that according to its Municipal Law and practice the act complained of does not involve discrimination against aliens as compared to nationals. This applies in particular to the question of the treatment of the person of aliens. It has been repeatedly laid down that there exists in this matter a minimum standard of civilisation, and that a State which fails to measure up to that standard incurs international liability" - Oppenheim, International Law.
Australia is hamstrung in this regard, more so now because of our own poor record.
The Coalition’s severe crackdown on foreign aid will further diminish whatever claims Australia might retain as a humane nation and good international citizen. Spending billions on capital naval vessels vulnerable to easy destruction by air-to-sea and ground-to-sea missiles may prove less of a defence against risk than would the billions being cut from the aid program which could reduce poverty and remove resentment in poorer nations, otherwise manifesting over time in terrorist attacks on Australian citizens and assets.
The anticipated revised Defence White Paper is eagerly awaited but there are few indications that it will reflect fresh thinking on Australia's strategic needs, stuck in a dilemma between the US and China. Stuck because our defence infra-structure is already too deeply embedded with that of the US to allow much choice. We need to focus more sharply on security issues close to home, around our coasts and the sea-lanes to and fro, including off-shore resources and installations. No more Iraqs.
On foreign policy, following an initial round of regional gladhanding, the Coalition now faces its own challenge with Indonesia, over electronic surveillance. It will test its skills to ride this one out. In other respects it could do better at upholding Australian values abroad.
While all governments have to come to terms with globalisation in trade and investment it seems that the opportunity is being lost for qualifying its application by removing abuses which cause economic distortion, and thereby safeguarding legitimate domestic business and employment interests. For example, the race to get Free Trade Agreements (they have little to do with 'free trade' in the classic economists' sense) with China and others will shortly challenge unity in government ranks. The fact is that FTA's are a travesty of a free trade system, a system painstakenly evolved over the decades since the political and economic disasters of the 1930s - lessons that have obviously been lost on recent political generations (to our eventual cost).
In negotiating the FTA with the US the previous Howard Government sold out a number of trade sectors, particularly the primary sector. There is a danger now of repetition. Apparently the Chinese are insisting as conditions that its telecommunications behemoth Huawei should be allowed access to the Australian NBN and that the investment limit for agricultural land should be raised from $15 million to one billion.
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