Every now and then a former parliamentary leader, minister or MP returns to the airwaves or to our TV screens to comment on issues that they think are important, on policy issues that they can still offer a reasonable opinion on. Some do it more than others as if craving to be back on the national stage in a big way. Some appear to have lucid thoughts, others not so intelligent or in-touch thoughts. Paul Keating is one such man. At times his thoughts on current challenges facing Australia and the world are clearly observable in reality, even on the money, and sometimes his ideas and comments are way off the mark.
The former Prime Minister last night went on Lateline to talk about a speech he was asked to deliver- the Keith Murdoch Oration which was given at the State Library of Victoria. It was a speech called Asia in the New Order: Australia’s Diminishing Sphere of Influence. The oration comes just a short time after the Labor Party released their Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.
In a wide-ranging speech about Australia’s positioning in Australia, both in historic and forward-looking terms, former Prime Minister Keating focused particularly on our relationship with Indonesia and her government based in Jakarta.
Australia’s relationship with Jakarta has been much like a yo-yo. We have had a tough time having to establish and then re-establish firm ties with Indonesia at different times in our mutual political history. Most recently, that cooperation was lost over the East Timor dispute and then clawed back, particularly since the Bali bombings.
Keating’s speech made a number of claims about how Australia should be participating in Asia and with whom that political interaction would offer the best outcomes for Australia.
Ostensibly, Mr Keating said that our key strategic relationship in the Asia-Pacific should actually be situated in the Indo-Pacific, specifically with a close geographical neighbour, Indonesia.
Paul Keating has form talking up the need for a close strategic partnership with Indonesia. Just under twenty years ago the former Australian Prime Minister declared that, “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. ”
His argument last night with regard to our relationship with Indonesia was based on three main themes, They were that our partnership lacks “structure” and “coherence” and is dominated by “transactional issues”. Those arguments are, for the most part, wrong.
The Australia-Indonesia relationship, though testy at times, has been a firm one for the past decade despite the occasional flash of discontent toward Australia and vice versa.
To say that the bilateral ties between Australia and Indonesia lack structure is false. For one, increasing economic ties with Indonesia is currently on the negotiating table. We are working towards an Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement and have been since 2010 when it was announced that discussions had commenced.
Australia and Indonesia are also part of regional bodies including the Bali Process, the Indonesia-Australia Annual Leaders’ meeting and APEC where we have the chance to meet on both a multilateral and bilateral basis.
The only regional forum where Australia is missing out on interaction with Indonesia is ASEAN, We are not a member of this grouping and that is one area where Paul Keating is correct to say we could improve on engagement with our region.
Australia-Indonesia ties do not lack coherence either. Coherence cannot be found to be lacking when we have set meetings at which we engage with the Indonesians at both a multilateral and bilateral level. It cannot be said that our regular two-way visits imply a lack of ongoing relations with our northern neighbour.
In terms of transactional issues, the former Prime Minister almost has a point. He talked about specific examples, the live export trade which was temporarily suspended and about the ongoing people movement between Indonesia and Australia.
They are transactional issues but our relationship goes beyond that. At the very least there appears to be a working relationship that has continued between President Yudhoyono and Julia Gillard after being grown by John Howard in particular and then Kevin Rudd.
There are times when we do not get as much as we would like from the Indonesians and they from us, but that is the nature of most relationships, not just with Indonesia. Particularly in the case of Indonesia, there are some things that they just cannot or will not grant us, mostly by virtue of the fact that they are a developing nation.
When talking about military and security power, the regional importance of Indonesia is questionable. They have a weak defence force and even weaker border protection capabilities. Australia, to its credit is trying to provide some assistance in those areas.
Paul Keating is wrong when he talks about needing to pull back from the Australia-US relationship in order to have a stronger friendship with Indonesia. Our relationship has been largely maintained, even grown throughout a period of increased Australian military ties with the United States of America.
The same is true of our relationship with China, despite their initially being some protestations from both the Chinese and the Indonesians when we announced a greater ongoing military presence in the Northern Territory. Those purported tensions appear to no longer be an issue or at least not one to foment great conflict.
Should we dramatically escalate ties with the USA? Perhaps not. However, the purported need to dramatically disengage from one of our ANZUS partners is overstated, even based on an illusion.
It is quite silly of Paul Keating to say that our relationship with Indonesia lacks structure and coherence and is dominated by transactional issues. This is clearly not the case.
The Prime Minister has arrived in New York for a week of lobbying the nations of the world in order to secure one of two non-permanent seats on the Security Council, the key decision-making body for matters of security, though to describe it as a ‘decision-making’ authority is a bit of a stretch with decisions easily stifled.
The bid, first announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd four years ago pits us against Finland and Luxembourg, two European powers, with the powerful and large continent of Europe well and truly behind them. It is believed that Australia has secured the support of the majority of Asian, Caribbean and Pacific member countries and will seek to focus on lobbying African nations for remaining votes. The contest, a protracted process that the two European nations were in years before us, has reportedly cost $40 million over the last four years.
So why go ahead with seeking a spot on the Security Council? And is it really worth it, given the roadblocks that decision-making processes within the body face due to the veto powers of the 5 permanent members, who also possess veto powers?
Australia has certainly has a “proud track record of work within the United Nations” as the Prime Minister has said today, with involvement at its peak during the establishment of the UN, the replacement body for the League of Nations that came into being as a result of World War Two. Our involvement was heavy and meant punched well above our weight as a relatively new nation in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
However, in the Security Council world nations have failed, allowing decisions to be blocked so easily by China, Russia, France, the United States of America and the United Kingdom and that’s before you take into account the scale of a vote needed to pass a resolution without a permanent power using their veto.
Our bid, it is true, means greater engagement with the world, but is a bid for a highly flawed institution necessary to achieve greater engagement with the world when major decisions regarding peace and security can be so easily stopped in their tracks by a small number of countries within the Security Council? The answer is a resounding no. $40 million seems a pretty high price to pay for little material difference to the peaceful interactions of nations and between countries and their people.
Not being a part of the Security Council does not mean not engaging with the world, but means going about that engagement from a different direction. No matter what happens, and it seems a high probability we will not secure a temporary seat at the table, we will still be a part of the UN, retaining our seat in the General Assembly. On top of that, we have the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank for global interaction, albeit not in peace and security circles, but that does not necessarily need to be the main game on the global for a middle power like Australia.
Australia as a nation outside of the Security Council has involved itself actively in matters of security around the world too, particularly over the last 10 years, interacting more with major powers like the US and the NATO organisation with our efforts in Iraq and currently still in Afghanistan. We’ve also played a major part in peace and security concerns in our region, heavily engaging with Indonesia since the Bali bombings which killed 88 Australians. We’ve also engaged in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, trying to bring independence, peace and democracy to the former and aiming to restore peace and security in the latter.
So really, a place on the Security Council, a temporary one at that, for two years, is redundant. It is so not just because the body itself stifles any action in areas of peace and security, but because Australia as a nation has engaged, most importantly in our direct region in such ventures, but also more globally with the US and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan. The good news is that we can continue to do that in a more targeted and effective manner from the periphery. Oh, and also, we might not even get there in the first place, what then? The sky won’t fall in.