Foreign Ministers’ quiet voice of reason

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Thursday, 29 October 2009 18:26 by Ad astra

Amid all the shrill and often disingenuous comments thrown around by politicians and many media commentators, it was comforting to listen to the quiet voice of reason of our own Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, speaking on the 7.30 Report last night, and that of Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, on Lateline.

So many of the facts of this matter seem to have been forgotten by so many.  78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a boat coming from Sri Lanka found themselves in a hazardous maritime situation and also had an ill child on board, not in Australian waters, not even in Indonesian waters, but in an area for which Indonesia is responsible for search and rescue.  As there were no Indonesian vessels in the area of the distressed boat, Indonesian authorities asked Australia if it could assist.  As there were no Australian commercial vessels in the vicinity, it agreed to send its customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, which was near, to rescue the asylum seekers and bring them to a port designated by Indonesian authorities.  It was carrying out a humanitarian exercise under its obligations under maritime law to go to the assistance of those in peril on the seas.  There was nothing political about the rescue at all, despite all the uninformed media comment and Coalition hyperbole.

Australia is now caught with 78 asylum seekers insisting that they will not voluntarily disembark at an Indonesian port in Bintan and go into detention there, and this dilemma has given every critic of the Government a chance to vent spleen, no matter what the facts of the situation are. 

The media ought to know better than to misrepresent the situation to push its political agenda, but it’s not surprising that Coalition members have been out in droves trying to garner any political advantage no matter how deceptive their claims might be.  We have had a range of views from Wilson Tuckey’s ‘send in the armed forces to remove the Sri Lankans’ to new-found sympathy for asylum seekers from a range of Coalition members who seems to be trying to establish an argument that Kevin Rudd is ‘less humane’ than John Howard; even ‘brutal’ says Malcolm Turnbull.  It’s so laughable that only rusted-on supporters could swallow their inconsistent policy-free spiel.  And despite being asked scores of times what they would do, they have no answer, except the specious one that, as Turnbull insists, he would not have ‘unpicked the Howard policy in the first place’.  Yet when asked whether a Coalition government would reintroduce TPVs and the ‘Pacific Solution’ they run a mile rather than say they would.

We can ignore the Coalition’s contribution to the dialogue knowing we will not have missed any important debating point.

For his part Kevin Rudd has decided that he must talk to that part of the electorate that wants secure borders and an orderly immigration policy – thus the ‘tough’ line, while also talking to those who would prefer more open borders, including some of his back benchers and some union officials who are advocating the ‘humane’ line.  Because of his desire to accommodate both views, he has made himself more vulnerable to attack from both sides.  Whether he can fashion policy that can achieve this accommodation remains to be seen.  The week in QT has been rowdy, angry and unedifying.  The real asylum seeker debate has been sidelined by the cut and thrust of the Opposition and the counter-thrust of the Government.

It is not my intention to add to the confusing discourse on this matter, but rather to point visitors to two people who have injected balance and commonsense into the convoluted debate.  They are Stephen Smith, and Marty Natalegawa, recently- appointed Indonesian Foreign Minister.

What Stephen Smith had to say on the 7.30 Report is recorded in a piece on ABC News 'Patience' needed on asylum solution.  You can hear what he said via the video recording of his interview with Kerry O’Brien on that page.  I believe you will agree that what he said was sensible, lucid and plausible. 

Then on Lateline there was Marty Natalegawa talking for fifteen minutes with Leigh Sales, in what was one of the best interviews on Lateline I’ve seen for a while.  Indeed he would put many of our politicians to shame. He explained every aspect of what is an enormously difficult and convoluted exercise in international diplomacy as well as domestic politics, and emphasized the importance of ‘an abundance of patience’.

You can hear him by going to the Lateline page for 28 October and selecting the Indonesian foreign minister discusses asylum seekers video near the top of the page.  So far there is no transcript.

If only all others involved in discussing this matter could bring such calm and balance to the debate.

What do you think?

Please note that this is my last post for four weeks, as I’m leaving tomorrow for Thailand and Singapore to meet up with friends.  It would be too difficult to continue posting while overseas, or to respond to your comments.

I look forward to rejoining you in around four weeks.