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Published in CRIKEY 17 April 2013

Australia is in a unique position to show leadership and initiative on the vexed question of North Korea. Using the influence that membership of the Security Council offers, Australia might seek to broker an ongoing UN based dialogue between the United States, China, South and North Korea and Japan.

Australia has a respected record within the international community for addressing and negotiating outcomes on difficult issues. These cover a range of matters, including nuclear proliferation, law of the sea, the Antarctic, apartheid, the environment and the visit to China in 1971 by Gough Whitlam, which helped pave the way for other western states to end China’s international isolation.

America is as much the problem as it is a solution in seeking resolution to the ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Since the end of WWII the United States has relied on the threat of military force and the use of military force to underpin its diplomacy. As a result, the subtle art of negotiation, networking and the development of relationships has not flourished to the extent it might have had America not had so much wealth and raw power at its disposal. American diplomats exude a charm designed to deflect intimacy and defuse difficult dialogue, they were once adept at dealing with fawning foreigners, the times are changing but their diplomatic skills such as they were have not changed.

North Korea gives America cover for deploying sophisticated weaponry close to China. South Korea is a beneficiary of the American presence and limited largesse, but whilst it seems to understand the posturing of its neighbour, would, nonetheless, like to see a lessening of northern hysteria and a gradual normalisation of the relationship. Anything too rapid would swamp its economy.

China has moved on. It understands and can deal with its hyper-active little neighbour, but it has bigger fish to fry and does not want North Korea taking advantage of any move it might make to secure a pre-planned position in the region.

Japan is fed up with North Korea and China; it seeks certainty and predictability from its neighbours.

The family run, despotic, dictatorship, recently inherited by Kim Jong Un following the death of his father Kim Jong-iL, is noted for its human rights abuses and slavish forced obedience to the state by the much abused citizens of the Orwellian night-mare that is North Korea today. The founding grand- father Kim ll-sung is today given religious status by the military dominated communist party.

At the time Whitlam made his famous foray into the middle kingdom, it was a dark and tortured communist state, just emerging from the bloody and cruel Cultural Revolution instigated by the founding father, Mao Zedong, as a means of retaining his hold over the state.

Following the Whitlam visit, China slowly and unevenly began the process of engagement with the rest of the world and of modernisation of industries and cities. Over time it adopted many of the features of capitalism whilst retaining a central, single party, communist state.

Maybe with the right sort of diplomacy, North Korea, might be gradually induced toward more positive engagement towards it neighbours and the rest of the world. The place to start might well be the Security Council. Anything to do with diplomacy and North Korea is high risk, but Australia once had a capacity to undertake creative and front footed diplomacy. It is worth a try and there is not a lot for Australia to lose should it not produce results and a lot to be gained if it does.

North Korea is like the pound dog, there is little to be gained by kicking it when it bites or barks. It needs to learn some new responses through rewards rather than attempting to match its own bad behaviour. Rewards have been tried before but without dialogue.

The big stick has been wielded until it only provokes bared teeth and a frantic straining at the leash. North Korea has been subject to 14 adverse Security Council Resolutions, a record close to that of Apartheid South Africa.

Australia might institute, through the Security Council, a permanent forum for dialogue on an as needs, ad hoc basis, for discussion to occur even when a crisis is not underway. Australia needs to also concentrate efforts on the United States, seeking to curb its aggression and posturing, not only with respect to North Korea but also Iran. Sadly for the United States it has little concept on how other states view it. Additionally it finds it very hard to process criticism. Australia has a role in helping to protect the United States against itself.

Using the Security Council as a base of authority and as a means of expressing leadership, Australia might seek to engage members of the General Assembly on the issue on an ongoing basis. Although North Korea engages in posturing it would take very little for a miscalculation to occur and for an exchange of arms to spiral out of control and wind back.

Naturally South Korea and Japan would need to be engaged in close dialogue, but in this process China would need to be a close ally of Australia – and no bad thing for our relationship with both America and China. It would serve to demonstrate to the US that whilst we have their best interests at heart we are not a mere cipher of their greater aims and ambitions.

The world has a choice – more of the same or a North Korea gradually brought into the community of nations.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published in CANBERRA TIMES 11 April 2013

When Prime Minister Gillard looked to appoint an expert body to examine refugee policy, she did not look to where she might find genuine knowledge and experience. She rather chose those that she felt would endorse her policies of deterrence and the unenforceable, quite unworkable and cruel Malaysian ‘Solution’.

She didn’t get all that she wanted but she got enough. Her experts had some pride they couldn’t appear to be examining policy at her direction, rubber stamps, but of course they were.

Had she chosen real experts she would have received advice that she did not want, advice, which was politically unpalatable. The chairperson of the expert group, Angus Houston, had no previously acknowledged expertise in the area of refugee policy, other than being head of the Defence Force at a time when the Royal Australian Navy was tasked with intercepting, and helping, refugees making the dangerous passage by sea in boats to Australia.

Houston recently demonstrated the extent to which he is a government cipher by claiming that all Sri Lankans arriving by boat were economic refugees. This assertion was made before boat arrivals from Sri Lanka have been given an opportunity to lodge and have their claims heard in terms of Australian and international law. It is a line of convenience run by the government of Sri Lanka and accepted by the Australia because it dovetails into domestic requirement to return refugees in order to establish political advantage.

Deterrence, as an instrument of policy toward refugees, has not and will not work. It completely ignores the factors driving people to get on dangerous boats and undertake risky and hazardous journeys, it completely ignores human nature and it is totally devoid of compassion and common sense. A proposal to release asylum seeking families into the community on Bridging Visas and not allow them to work, whilst paying them 89% of the new start allowance, is a cruel punishment on top of what they have already suffered. Refugees come to Australia to start a new life, which includes the opportunity to work. They come to Australia to start a new life, not to bludge.

Houston’s record on human rights is not outstanding. There is little on the public record to indicate he did much during his six years as head of the defence force to address the question of abuse of service personnel. His successor, General David Hurley, has shown a far greater commitment to the issue including a focus on quite serious grievances concerning serving members of the ADF.

Of the other members of the expert panel Michael L’Estrange can claim little expertise and the report of the select group, of which he was a member, appears to bear that out.

The third member, Paris Aristotle, has long been viewed with concern by refugee activists for seeking to play on either side of the fence and be all things to all men and women, when no such position exists within refugee advocacy, particularly over the past sixteen years.

The real experts on refugees are out of the loop, deliberately so, through decisions taken by Howard, Rudd and Gillard who have sought either to shamelessly politicise the issue for perceived electoral gain or have not had the moral courage to act, in accord with Australian domestic law and international conventions, to which we are signatories, and in so acting take the Australian public with them. To do that they would have had to handle strong domestic criticism; however they have demonstrated, through the recent attempt to ram through parliament the now failed press bill, that they fear criticism.

The opposition spokesperson on immigration, Scott Morrison, is at war with refugees. He gives every indication of not liking any of them, at least those arriving by boat. He appears to see refugees as gate crashers, aka, John Howard, “We will decide who comes here and when”. He is not alone, it is a sentiment shared by some within the Department of Immigration, who take their gate keeping responsibilities to levels matched only by night club bouncers. However they are not all to blame; the dysfunction of the two major parties must affect the capacity of the public service to formulate policy and discharge its duties.

Morrison is a nasty piece of work; he talks the talk of a bully and as such will come a cropper when boats keep appearing on the horizon after he becomes Minister. The Navy will not be party to causing deaths at sea, so he will need to hire mercenaries or pirates to tow his boats back. Morrison has failed to understand or comes to terms with the drive, initiative, desperation and courage of some refugees to escape persecution using ‘whatever it takes’. The latter he should understand because that what is driving both his own apparent personal vendetta and Coalition policy, if it can be referred to as such, toward individuals travelling to Australia by boat seeking refugee status.

Morrison and Abbott delude themselves if they think they can stop the boats. Short of sinking boats, they cannot and will not stop them. The needs of the refugees are far stronger than their puny political ambition.

Their appeal on this and other issues is to a nationalism and jingoism which resides within and amongst several narrow groups of Australians. This is an increasingly limited base on which to build a political future, it is not inclusive, it is short term and not likely to deliver long term political appeal, unless their government resorts to coercion, in all its many forms, to hold onto power. Heaven forbid.

Perhaps if refugee policy was formulated with the achievable aim of managing the boats a ‘solution’ might be possible. Managing boat arrivals requires a regional dialogue, with processing in Indonesia. If the rhetoric from Australian politicians about keeping asylum seekers off boats has any credibility, which I doubt, then processing on Indonesia would go a long way toward meeting the demands of the rhetoric.

Australia can use its position on the UN Security Council to add weight to a regional dialogue, or were it so inclined, to implement revised arrangements for the processing of all refugees in the region under an appropriate arrangement or MOU.

Australia might use its position on the Security Council to press for the processing of Tamil asylum seekers on Sri Lanka under UN supervision. They might also seek the intervention of a small UN peace keeping force to protect Tamils, particularly in the north of the country, from persecution amounting to genocide. Several weeks ago a million students in the state of Tamil Nadu went on strike to protest these ongoing abuses by the Sri Lankan government and the government of that state has recently banned Sri Lankan players.

And as a postscript, the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived in Geraldton Harbour on 9 April are perfectly entitled to do so. They have done nothing wrong. Their arrival and subsequent claims are covered by the UN Convention on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory and from which it has not withdrawn. The essential parts of the Convention have been incorporated in Australian law. Excising Australian islands or parts of the mainland do not exterminate the rights of asylum seekers under the Convention or Australian law. The Australian government has chosen to act in defiance of the Convention and its own laws. What a sorry state of affairs. Abbott continues to confuse immigrants and asylum seekers, whilst having us believe he is sufficiently sophisticated to run the country.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former Member of the Refugee Tribunal.

Published in ONLINE OPINION 11 April 2013 and The Canberra Times 20 April 2013

The state of governance in Australia has never been terrific. Curtain should have stood up to Churchill sooner and brought Australian troops home from the Middle East immediately after the debacle of Greece and Crete. He was pushed around and dominated by the supreme bully, General Mac Arthur.

Menzies, who had avoided service in WWI, complied with the directives and the philosophy coming out of Washington in the 1950’s and 1960’s and actively conspired to have Australian troops fight with Americans in Vietnam. To help do this he introduced ballot conscription for under age Australian males in a most underhand manner.

Whitlam was all huff and puff; he was unable to see off his own appointee as governor general when that extraordinarily vain, arrogant and weak man made moves to have him dismissed, an undertaking in which he was ultimately successful.

Fraser, the head prefect, of a most uninspiring cabinet, behaved and sounded like the public school poonce that he was. His was a government, like that of Whitlam, of lost opportunity. It was only after he left politics that he matured.

Hawke was a populist, who thrived on attention, he rode an economic upswing, until we encountered the ‘recession that we had to have’. That did not deter Keating as Treasurer, who began the recent Labor tradition of dumping leaders in office.

Keating had a strong agenda and the will to implement it. It was a free market agenda coupled uneasily with a strong social agenda, particularly Aboriginals. His free market philosophy, also embraced by arch conservative, political trickster and premier of NSW, Nick Griener, sits uneasily with the internal and external tyranny of distance suffered by a sparsely populated Australia.

Howard was a proponent of divide and rule. His political tools were fear, cricket, of which he knew little, and the American alliance. He took Australia to war, without a declaration, every bit as sneakily and dishonestly as his much admired Menzies. His legacy is state based terrorism inflicted on refugees. Like Hawke, only more so, he rode a wave of economic prosperity, which both he and his spineless Treasurer, Costello, believed they were responsible for. He bought votes with cash hand outs particularly to the increasingly wealthy middle class and he encouraged personal borrowing, which came home to roost as a result of the GFC.

Rudd came to power by deploying the finely honed skill of white-anting. He matched every twist and turn of Howard, something he had done to Laurie Brereton, when he wanted to be opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs and something he is doing now to Julia Gillard. He was, and remains, a vain glorious little man, a fact, which, too late became apparent to his caucus colleagues. They dumped him and made another grave error of judgement by replacing him with Julia Gillard, who believes in nothing except her own ambition, a trait she shares in common with her predecessor.

There is little of Labor about Gillard, except her voice, which seems to have been donated across time by Billy Hughes. Her race seems to have been run, with Abbott set to replace her in September. Her path, like that of her predecessors, is littered with what might have been, moral courage has been in short supply in Australian politics. The great unspoken and un-investigated is corruption in Australian politics, underlined by Eddie Obied and the almost complete absence of moral fibre demonstrated by the last state Labor government in NSW.

To my mind the issue which has defined federal governments over the past decade and a half is the manner in which both major parties have chosen to handle refugees. Fearful of polls and lacking the quality most needed in politicians, that of leadership, they have chosen to demonise and bully the weakest amongst us, the one group requiring our care and compassion – asylum seekers.

Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott have all used bullying as an instrument of politics. Their policies toward asylum seekers were and are not designed to protect and embrace those most in need, but rather to deter asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.

The rhetoric of the Gillard government has been to claim that they are trying to break the people smuggler business model, and to assist they appointed an ‘expert panel’ to come up with policies to back their exclusionist boat policy. The government and opposition claim they want to stop people taking dangerous sea voyages, yet they stubbornly refuse to consider the option of processing on Indonesia for fear of encouraging more arrivals.

Current policies harm people. The victims are victimised, some incarcerated without hope of release because of fear they may engage in acts of terrorism. Advice tended to ASIO by a discredited Sri Lankan government, who happened to be the winner of a cruel civil war. The deal being if we detain their nominees they will prevent asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. How low can we go as a nation?

Deterrence amounts to an unconscionable and prolonged act of state bullying.

Asylum seekers have limited power. What power they have resides with the proper application of the UN Refugee Convention.

Why should kids on face book, in school or on the footy ground or netball court behave differently to the example being set by government; it should lead by example. It demonstrates cowardice in the face of challenge which in turn undermines social cohesion, one recent example being in sport.

Abbott has indicated he will return to Howard’s policies on everything except Work Choices should he become prime minister. Incredibly he believes this is the issue that lost Howard the election. It was not. The electorate became very sick of Howard’s inability to tell the truth.

Abbott is a strange man. He seems to need and enjoy the company of Cardinal Pell, the prelate of high Catholic Church office, who over the years has sought to cloud and obscure issues relating to acts of paedophilia committed by clergy of his faith in Australia, at the expense of the victims and their families. Pell has in common with Abbott a propensity to bully and to tinker with the truth.

The new Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was accused by some of ignoring the plight of victims of the military junta which terrorised Argentina in the late 1970’s. In particular there was reference to two Jesuit priests who were detained, perhaps with the knowledge, or as some alleged the assistance of the new Pope. His defenders have been numerous including Cardinal Pell. He said on ABC radio that the allegations were investigated and dismissed by Amnesty International.

Contacted they replied, “In the case of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Amnesty International knows of a case opened in 2005 of the disappearance of two Jesuit priests, but has no documentation to prove or discount the participation of the new Pope in these events.”

What does Abbott believe will be gained by bringing Cardinal Pell to centre stage of politics, particularly when Australia is a secular country?

Abbott is a bully and he encourages other bullies such as Scott Morrison, but as a bully he lacks substance. He has put forward few policies and nothing he has said indicates a capacity to be able to change Australia for the better. His bullying and blustering indicate yet another timid and weak leader.

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Abbott is behind the times. He is out of date and out of step with much of the electorate. His rise is due solely to the demise of Gillard.

Australia deserves better. It seems to me Australia, like Italy, achieves despite government.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.

Published in CANBERRA TIMES 6 April 2013

“The Bracegirdle Incident”, Alan Fewster

At 155 pages it is not a long book, but is a ripping good yarn for students of history, politics and the human condition. As Humphrey McQueen says it would translate into an entertaining play and/or television production.

It is a book that operates on a number of levels. At one level it provides some fascinating insights into the colonial life of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the late 1930’s; at another, into colonial governance, with all of the certainties and established procedures of the Colonial Office and its ornate and at times adroit, overseas hierarchy.

It details the growing demand for independence of a racially divided Ceylon, with all of the guile and at times deceit of the local educated elite and the trials and tribulations of the white man’s burden – and bungling.

At yet another it provides an insight into the early causes of the racially motivated problems besetting Sri Lanka today.

The book has a cast of characters that equip it to be translated into a modern Gilbert and Sullivan musical and certainly looked at through one set of glasses, the events portrayed, by former diplomat, now author, Alan Fewster, could provide material for the most wonderful farce.

The main character, as far as Fewster is concerned, is an Australian, Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle, born in England. He has a half brother Simon born as a result of a relationship during WWI. Their mother is an artist, suffragette, Labour Party candidate for the London Borough Council in 1925 and emigrant to Australia with her sons in 1927.

After a period at Bingara, in the north of NSW, she headed to Sydney. There she mixed with artists, socialists, communists and members of the social elite including the Governor. Soon after their arrival Mark Anthony also headed bush where he spent some years knocking around. By 1932, aged 20, he was in Melbourne with his mother and brother, where he undertook study in art.

By 1935 he had come to the attention of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch (CIB) of the Attorney General’s Department for being ‘actually associated with the Communist movement’. The CIB later morphed into ASIO, passing on, for safe keeping, all of its carefully nurtured paranoia.

Mark Anthony Bracegirdle was a man of social conscience, a member of the Communist Party of Australia, the Young Communist League, and a Stalinist.

In February 1936 Bracegirdle applied for and was granted a passport to travel to Ceylon to obtain employment as a junior tea planter or creeper, a term used by the expatriate planters.

He quickly loses respect for tea planters and conversely gains sympathy for the indentured Tamil estate labourers. As a result he quits his job.

Ceylon is overdue for self-government. The colonial administration and the planters are resisting local politicians, who are pressing their claims through the State Council, a colonial body with limited power. Matters are log jammed, until Bracegirdle comes on the scene and gets in touch with local communists, who also happen to be professionals, wealthy and members of the State Council. By now Bracegirdle had gone native, dressing in sarong, shirt and bedroom slippers.

As a white man who has thrown his lot in with ‘the other side’, Bracegirdle is seen as a traitor to his race, a ‘crime’ in this colony far more serious than class traitor, as such he is a most useful propaganda weapon for the Sinhalese hard heads. An opportunity to make a case is presented to them when there is a bungled attempt to deport Bracegirdle from Ceylon. It is a matter which goes to court, Bracegirdle wins, but more importantly allows the increasingly militant and anti-British local politicians to test the power of the inept Governor, Sir Edward Stubbs, the Chief Secretary, the vacilating Sir Maxwell Wedderburn, the irascible and cunning, Leader of the House, Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka, the even more cunning and calculating, Deputy Leader of the House, Don Stephen Senanayake, the no nonsense Deputy Inspector of Police, P.N.Banks, the Chief Justice, Sir Sidney Solomon Abrahams, overseen by the imperturbable H.R.Cowell of the Colonial Office.

Bracegirdle did not just offer sympathy and support, he spoke at two public meetings. In terms of bringing about change they achieved little, however they were very important in establishing his credentials as an Englishman supporting fundamental change and his savvy political minders used them to that end.

Bracegirdle was conscripted and the battle was for constitutional change. Because of the alleged misconduct in the handling of Bracegirdle’s proposed deportation, a Bracegirdle Commission of Inquiry was instituted. Bracegirdle did not hang about; he left Ceylon on 29 October 1937, one month before the Commission sat. He never returned. He went to England, marrying a girl he had met on the boat to Ceylon.

The findings did not alter the political status quo, although it did allow the airing of grievances by local politicians and pushed ahead proposals for constitutional reform which would have amounted to self-government.

However WWII intervened and other measures leading to independence in 1948 were implemented. They did not address the vexed question of minority rights which has brought Sri Lanka to its present sad point in history.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who has served in Sri Lanka

“The Bracegirdle Incident”, Alan Fewster, Arcadia, 2013.