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Published: ABC the Drum Unleashed and The Canberra Times

The most recent tragedy to befall the minority class of refugees known as, boat borne asylum seekers, has brought home the absolute bankruptcy, both moral and practical, of the policy and politics surrounding the needs of these desperate people.

Neither of the two major parties in this country have the intellectual capacity or emotional maturity to develop a sustainable response to the phenomena of abused individuals taking the initiative, with limited funds, in order to avoid becoming long-term victims and supplicants.

It might surprise both sides of government that the majority of boat arrivals accepted into this country do not want to receive handouts. They wish to work, they do work and they work hard. They go without and they sacrifice in order that their kids do well. They put aside money to send home to family and other relatives, they pay off the people who helped get them to Australia, known by the emotional dwarfs who are in temporary positions of power in this country as people smugglers and they put aside money to pay rent and if they are lucky mortgages. For you have to be lucky to get a mortgage in this country at this time.

I have been dealing with issues surrounding refugees since 1972 and those issues and the needs associated with them have not changed.

Having dealt at first-hand with these issues it is stating the obvious to observe that those in government, making cruel and stupid pronouncements, have no experience or indeed interest, outside of the dynamic of seeking political advantage, to understand and deal with the human aspects of displaced and traumatised people. They throw themselves upon the mercy of this country and are entitled to do so under the UN Convention on Refugees which has been incorporated into Australian law.

These claimants are not illegal entrants in any sense of the word and to call them such and to treat them as such is illegal under Australian and international law. It is to the eternal shame of the smart-arsed main stream media that they have gone along with this pejorative labelling and/or have done little to challenge this abuse of our laws and legal procedures.

At the outset it is possible to make an observation about the tragic deaths by drowning of desperate people on the rocks of Christmas Island; either their presence and plight were ignored until it was too late to effectively intervene under the conditions prevailing or the system of detection, normally in place, broke down.

In an altogether predictable reaction the government has gone after the person they claim organised the passage of the ill-fated asylum seekers to Australia from Indonesia. To have identified the so-called people smuggler so early after the event indicates a degree of intelligence and involvement on the part of the AFP that needs explanation.

In that murky world of desperation, need and the avariciousness and corruption that it breeds, what is the role of our largely under-scrutinised AFP? Why did Gillard, from the outset, order a criminal investigation? Who advised her on that score? Was it the same brilliant minds that had her declaring that Julian Assange had broken Australian laws?

It should not need reiterating but it does; people smugglers respond to need. The desperation of traumatised and marginalised people creates a market. A market, surely members of Federal Parliament can understand that, banging on, as many do, about the need for market forces to operate even with respect to our finite and limited water supply.

Both sides of politics are gung-ho free marketeers; people smuggling is an expression of this ideal. People smugglers do not initiate the market they respond to it. That is why the vessels are fishing boats, they were designed to earn money from an altogether different undertaking. The desperation of the dispossessed has created a market which brings better financial reward than fishing.

The mindset, developed into policy, that the problem of boat-borne asylum seekers begins and ends with people smugglers prevents a more sophisticated consideration of the cause and effect of this particular movement of people, which must be set against the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers who arrive in this country by plane.

Dirty, grubby domestic politics ensures that little rational discussion of this issue can take place with both major parties slithering and sliding further and further to the murky right in their attempts to out-manoeuvre each other whilst appealing to and bolstering low-life opinion on the issue in the Australian community – a continuing and unedifying insight into what passes for political leadership in this country.

Surely it must have dawned on both sides of politics by now that current management of this will not win the party in power any points or kudos; a cute and convenient issue to throw at the Government when in opposition, a disaster when in power.

The most recent tragic sinking of an asylum seeker vessel offers Gillard and the Government the opportunity to remove the issue as a political football. She should convene a Royal Commission to examine the whole issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat with particular reference to the latest tragedy. Once completed both sides of government would have an opportunity to put aside the politics of the issue by referring to and creating policy around the findings of an independent arbitrator.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and was a diplomat and member of the refugee review tribunal.

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Published: The Canberra Times

Thanks to WikiLeaks we learnt on 10 December, that Australia is deeply pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan and Australian involvement. As Prime Minister, Rudd confessed to his American interlocutors that ‘Afghanistan scares the hell out of me’, which goes some way toward explaining why he was frequently photographed entering or leaving church.

The leaked cables detail an Australian lack of confidence in the ability of the Afghan police to be trained, the capabilities of the Afghan government and the strategies being deployed to win the war;. These assessments are at odds with public statements by the Rudd and Gillard governments.

As early as July, WikiLeaks released information which showed that the war was going badly and Obama’s surge strategy was a failure. Details in war logs listed activities of a secret ’black’ unit of special forces which hunts down and kills Taliban leaders, that the Taliban have acquired surface-to-air missiles, that the coalition is using Reaper drones controlled from Nevada to hunt and kill Taliban (and civilians if they happen to get in the way) and the increased success of road side bombing.

As Daniel Flitton said in The Age on 10 December, “What emerges from these cables is deep and enduring pessimism about the idea that a foreign force can impose peace in Afghanistan.”

Other leaked cables detail the extent to which Pakistan through their Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency are supporting militant Taliban groups including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani and Hekmatyar Afghan Taliban groups and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Both Haqqani and Hekmatyar ran Mujahideen groups during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and were supported and funded by the US. I met both of them in Peshawar.

Declan Walsh in The Guardian Weekly of 10 December, quotes the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, as saying ‘there is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance…as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups.’

Declan Walsh notes that the ISI and the Pakistan Army are determined to stop a pro-Indian government coming to power in Kabul. He writes that, “The analysis (by the US Ambassador) highlights a stark contradiction – that one of Washington’s key allies is quietly propping up its enemies – and is an admission of the limits of US power in a country that still views India, not the Taliban, as its principal threat. With Washington fearful of deploying troops to fight al-Qaida in Pakistan, money has been its main weapon since 2001. It has given the army $9bn to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal belt; on 22 October the White House announced an extra $2bn over the next five years.” Walsh notes that Pakistan has received $16bn in US aid since 2001.

Compare WikiLeaks and coverage of the war by the Guardian with the Australian media; inadequate at best, pathetic at worst. The dumbed down Good Weekend of 23 January carried what was to all intents and purposes an ADF promo ‘Women at War’, with little mention of the war, “ And yet Ingram patrols with a team of men whose task is to secure hostile territory, hunting down insurgents, pushing them back. ’Wherever they go I go. Wherever they sleep, I sleep.’ And there are other women not far away: specialists in electronic warfare; medics shadowing units they hope will not require their urgent attention.”

Neil James is the executive director, Australian Defence Association (ADA) he spins the defence message, including the war in Afghanistan, a subject on which he implies some knowledge. For example writing in Crikey on 14 October he had this to say. “With few individual exceptions (Brendan Nelson, John Faulkner) the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments have all led public debate on our Afghanistan commitment badly and complacently. Parliamentary opposition by the Australian Democrats and especially the Greens has also been ideological rather than evidence-based. No Democrat or Green senator has ever visited Oruzgan Province.”

He further expounds, “Australia has very few genuine academic experts on Afghanistan and even fewer without ethnic or religious irons in the fire (whatever that means, but best not go there). Professor Bill Maley from the ANU is almost the only one able to provide objective comment based on considerable and wide-ranging research in Afghanistan over decades.” What a shame his circle is so narrow, I could have provided James with a list.

Again in Crikey on the 29 July, James says in rather fanciful flight, “Put bluntly, WikiLeaks is not authorised in international or Australian law, nor equipped morally or operationally, to judge whether open publication of such material (on Afghanistan) risks the safety, security, morale and legitimate objectives of Australian and allied troops fighting in a UN-endorsed (it is not) military operation. Nor should and can groups such as WikiLeaks be so authorised or equipped respectively, especially when they are unaccountable to any responsible authority or international humanitarian law (IHL) in a legal or moral sense.” For the life of me I cannot see why international humanitarian law gets a run. But then all is relevant in spin and war.

The ADA had its genesis with the catholic right wing National Civic Council, set up and run by Bob Santamaria in the 1950’s from Victoria. Anti communist, abortion and anything else progressive or liberalising most believed it died with Santamaria.

James has pushed a line on Afghanistan similar to that publicly articulated by the Defence Department. It is a shame they did not take him into their confidence and share with him their hard- nosed ,and I believe correct assessment, of the limited prospects for ‘winning’ the war.

Thanks to WikiLeaks we can now debate our involvement free of spin.

Published: The Canberra Times

The leaking of documents classified as Secret is threatening to most people. It challenges their notion of established order and, for most, order is better than disorder no matter if that order is flawed. Change is challenging and often accompanied by upheaval and for many a sense of loss.

Western democracies are, by their nature, wedded to gradual change. The democratic system of government requires change through due process, consensus and consultation. Julian Assange is lobbing hand grenades amongst us, well perhaps stun grenades, because I suspect the greatest damage will occur from the panic they cause, particularly in Washington, rather than from shrapnel wounds.

The WikiLeaks are providing a balance to the virtual world created by classifying information of a gossipy, bitchy and salacious nature as Secret. With these leaks we have seen exposed the cowardice of the diplomacy, where reputations are trashed away from the openness of public discourse and without the countervailing balance of alternative views, opinions and facts. And to illustrate this we need to look no further than the manufactured but secret ‘intelligence’ relating to weapons of mass destruction.
Diplomats are wont to claim a legacy on talent and intelligence, they work hard to create a mystique about their profession, they claim and are given elite status and now we see many exposed as less than admirable and less than talented. This denouement is as far reaching as the reduction in stature of the British corps of staff officers at the end of WW1.

Pomposity, deviousness and deception have long been the hall mark of many professional practitioners of the diplomatic arts. WikiLeaks might lead to positive change but don’t hold your breath, it is more likely to cause a diminution of the diplomatic service and a reliance on other forms of gathering information and methods of intergovernmental communication.

Panic and over-reaction of the 9/11 variety has marked the US response to being caught with its pants down. But this reaction is all rather sad or rather it is sad to see a country which has so much going for it react so badly. Swirling not too far behind the newsprint and online stories is black humour of a strength and complexity that Joseph Heller would relate to.

A self administered diminution of US power coupled with the shrinking of the US economy, is fuel for conspiracy theorists, but in my opinion these events are not linked, except perhaps through the collapse of qualities that used to be associated with US leadership, particularly the perception of US leadership as tough minded, balanced and able to distinguish between moral and physical courage.

This perception may never have been real. It might have been a creation of Hollywood. US leadership of the ‘Free World ‘may have begun a long slow decline after Vietnam or maybe the collapse of European Communism rendered previous models of US leadership obsolete. Whatever the reality, Bush the Younger, had none of the qualities romantics like to associate with US presidents and to top it off he was singularly devoid of steadfastness and mental agility. Sadly, in my opinion, Australian leadership has followed suit. Why is political, public service and business life, in this country, so devoid of leadership? For instance, who is controlling decision making at Qantas? Isn’t Australia’s greatest living General on the Board?

We have heard the mantra, spin over substance, put forward as a reason, as an excuse, until I for one have become sick of hearing it. It really comes down to a lack of courage, seen under the Rudd government and now the Gillard government, deriving some of its current momentum from children overboard, when senior defence personnel and senior public servants failed to find the courage to stand up for the truth in the face of a manipulative and dishonest government and the opposition failed to question and probe what many in Australia saw as a lie on a par with weapons of mass destruction.

Under Bush, America went into a space that it had never publicly occupied before. It rendered military and political prisoners; it resorted to torture and publicly defended torture. Many people believe in the inherent capacity of the US to be a force for good. Maybe WikiLeaks, under the direction of Julian Assange, is seeking to put the US back on that path. I heard him described by some suited US official as an anarchist, more likely he is an idealist. He is certainly seeking to challenge the system as we know it. Not a bad thing when that system appears lost and leaderless and to be taking many with it.

The US over-reaction has had the effect of giving credibility to information in the leaks. The status of the cables has been elevated, when in the event much of the gossip would likely have been buried on file.

In the often arch world of diplomacy information is influence and can be traded for other information and to achieve outcomes. Faced with a situation where an Australian nurse was sentenced to 90 lashes for having been picked up with alcohol in a car in which she was a passenger on New Year’s Eve in Saudi Arabia, armed with the unpublished information that the son of the Saudi Ambassador had been picked up for drunken driving on Northbourne Avenue, I was able to secure the release of the nurse without her being physically punished by threatening to have the lads misdemeanours made public.

Not all diplomacy is catty and carefree. It can be a career for positive good when deployed on behalf of the dispossessed, oppressed and persecuted. However a US determination does not necessarily accord with the assessment of others, Hamid Khazi being a case in point.

The cables highlight a lack of erudition and poor use of the English language. Analysis is sloppy. Take for example a British description of Pakistan President, Assif Zadari. He is described as a nutter. That tells us very little of use. From my own experience of him Zadari lacks self confidence. He has limited intellectual capacity; he is lazy and greedy with an undeveloped moral compass. He is easily led and influenced. He likes the perks of office but not the responsibility. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, was a far stronger personality and very much more intelligent and courageous. We don’t see that type of analysis in the leaked cables.

These leaks will change the way we look at the process of diplomacy and once again at the way the US exercises its power; but we have seen that before and in that sense there is little that is new in the leaked cables.

The leaks are not the start of the revolution, great and sudden change will not occur, what the leaks will do is to feed into the process of change and altering perceptions of power and influence, already underway, between the major power blocks.
WikiLeaks is apparently protecting conversations with dissidents and information which might cause actual physical harm.

The US should aim to protect Julian Assange, whether he be in Britain, Somalia or Sweden. For if harm should befall him, rightly or wrongly, they will be blamed and the fallout from that will be greater than the leaks.