Our problem with “No”

Our culture of No to no is an invitation to a form of low-level unarmed invasion. 

 By Gary Scarrabelotti

For Indonesia’s sake, let’s hope its government does not make the same mistake that the Australian Labor Party, the Greens, the ABC, SBS and the Fairfax press have made about the man who is now Prime Minister of Australia. 

Last week Indonesia refused to take back asylum-seekers picked up at sea by an Australian vessel. Apparently this was the third time out of six incidents. These are not prudent moves.  Indonesia should resist the temptation to play games with Australia over asylum seekers now that Tony Abbott is Prime Minister. 

Should anyone in Jakarta feel coming over them an itch to use the people smuggling business as a way of making mischief for this country, then they would be wise to pause and consider: Who are we dealing with now? 

I tried to give a partial answer, for an Australian audience, to just such a question in May 2012 with a piece entitled “Comes the day, comes the man”.

The key paragraph – in so far as it sought to penetrate Abbott’s psychology – was this: 

“When he served as John Hewson’s press secretary, Abbott and his growing family lived in Canberra.  During those days, there was a time when he and I played golf together on the West Belconnen course. Each outing I got a thrashing.  It wasn’t fun.  So, when the demands of his job put an end to our forays onto the grassy sward, I was relieved.  Abbott did not just play better golf than I — which is not saying much — he played with a relentless will to win that operates like a battering ram on the psychology of any opponent.  I understood then what the punch drunk ranks of Labor MPs and their advisers still do not understand …” 

Among the Indonesian political elites, there is, I’m told, a fondness for golf. So I think that they’ll get the point. 

Abbott will always be courteous, respectful, and generally modest in his manners when dealing in international affairs — above all with Indonesia. His mode of address does not, however, signify a weakling. Abbott plays to win. He can be patient.  He can endure pain. He has trained himself to play the long game.  He has disciplined himself to receive setbacks.  He uses them, instinctively, as opportunities for deeper reflection and as a spur to greater endurance and wisdom. This is why he is Prime Minister today and those who mocked him have tasted defeat. 

Indonesia is potentially a very powerful country of great human and material consequence. But it is not there yet and it cannot afford to turn Australia into an aggrieved competitor — especially an Australia led by a man of serious intent and genuine toughness.

Pushing back

At the same time, I can understand why Indonesia is pushing back. Aside from questions of honour, and the passing opportunity to express its displeasure at Australian intelligence operations in Indonesia, the fundamental reason why Indonesia is cross with Australia is because of our incompetence in handling the asylum seeker issue. 

Our central failure is not a technical one relating to the design of refugee policy, though that has been serious enough.  The heart of the matter is a problem of ideology: of the reluctance of highly influential avant-garde opinion in Australia to admit that we have an obligation to our own people to control our borders and to deter illegal movements across them of asylum seekers irrespective of the merits of their claims. A sub-clause to this way of thinking is the notion that bogus asylum claims are almost impossible to imagine. 

This mind-set has established a firm foothold within the ALP and has captured entirely the Greens and, for the most part, the media, academy and legal profession.

In short, at its highest social and political echelons, Australia is suffering from a serious pathology.  It combines a crisis of cultural identity with an erratic moral compass. 

We just can’t say no, and that is why, essentially, the asylum seekers have been drawn to us. Our culture of No to no is an invitation to a form of low-level unarmed invasion. And, to get here, the would-be invaders tramp across Indonesia to launching points closest to Australia. And why wouldn’t they?

One would have to pretty dim not to understand the anger Indonesia must feel at the trouble we have created for them. True, there are corrupt Indonesian customs officials and members of the military who take advantage of the people trade to line their own pockets – and to pay out Australia for the humiliation of East Timor.  The dirty game they are playing is a complicating factor, but it is not the root source of why we have a border protection problem. The cause lies in the mentality of the people who have governed us – and of those who most influenced government and the administration of our laws — during the Rudd-Gillard era.

The game, however, has changed.  Indonesia is testing us now to see whether the change is for real and how deep it runs — and, up to a point, that’s understandable. Caution, however, is called for. Indonesia would surely wish to avoid making the same mistake that the Australian Labor Party made.

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