How is it that the only papers I could find while in Phuket and Singapore, The International Herald Tribune – The Global Edition of the New York Times, The Bangkok Post, and Singapore’s The Straits Times carried articles so much superior to those in most of Australia’s MSM? Do they engage better columnists, or do they pay more attention to the quality of the pieces they publish? Or are they less concerned with sensationalism and more with the unadulterated facts and balanced opinion? It was refreshing to read them. The account of APEC in The Straits Times seemed accurate, even-handed and informative. Apart from some photos of Kevin Rudd and Therese Rein arriving at APEC there was little about Australia’s contribution.
There was good coverage of the 20th Anniversary of the coming-down of the Berlin Wall, but there was precious little news from down under. The Oceanic Viking saga did get a small mention, unlike the mega-play it got in the media here. Has there been a recent issue that has attracted so much uniformed comment and fault-finding criticism? When last was there an issue where most journalists had so little to offer, except perpetual nit-picking criticism?
The origin of the episode seems to have so receded into the background that commentators no longer mention it: Indonesia received information that a boat carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers was in danger of sinking in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone, and as it had no vessels in the area, asked Australia if it had, and if so, would it render assistance. Customs vessel Oceanic Viking was nearby, and rescued the Sri Lankans. The deal was to take them to the nearest port, but as accommodation was short there, the ship was diverted to Bintan. It was there that local officials, in defiance of the arrangement made between the two countries, flexed their parochial muscles, refused to forcibly remove the refugees from the OV, and indicated they did not want to be a ‘dumping ground’ for refugees headed for Australia. Australia too was unwilling to use force, and so the boat people stayed put.
So what was Kevin Rudd and his ministers meant to do? Much criticism against Rudd was generated but few commentators suggested a plausible solution. The Greens and some Labor politicians said the asylum seekers should have been brought immediately to Christmas Island. But why? They were no more Australia’s responsibility than Indonesia’s. The mere fact that they wanted to go to Australia did not make them our responsibility. Moreover, what would the public, the Opposition and the media have said if Rudd had readily complied with the asylum seekers’ demands, and they were demands, and brought them to Christmas Island? Rudd would have been condemned as weak, ready to be pushed around by asylum seekers, and pathetically ‘soft’ on border protection. The Opposition and the media would paint him as an easy touch and all the talk about being ‘tough on people smugglers’ would have counted for nought. It would have been a foolish thing to do and would have wrecked Labour’s border protection policy. Greg Sheridan said just that. I for one was affronted by the asylum seekers’ insistence that they would decide where they wanted to go, bringing back as it did memories of John Howard’s “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” If a country can’t do that, what integrity does its borders, both sea and air, have?
Crikey’s Bernard Keane took a keen interest in this matter and had plenty to say. While most commentators assiduously avoided saying what ought to be done, as presumably they had no idea, and restricted their comments to criticism, which is dead easy and good journalistic fun to boot, he at least offered Rudd some options in a 9 November article Memo Rudd: an asylum solution, as follows:
“Compel the disembarkation of the asylum seekers by Customs personnel. This would have mixed political outcomes, drawing criticism from supporters of asylum seekers (the "humanes") and support from those antipathetic toward asylum seekers (the "toughs"). However, such a course of action is likely to alienate both local Indonesian authorities and the Indonesian Government itself. As the long-term cooperation of Indonesian authorities is critical to the success of Australia's broader asylum-seeker policy, this option would appear to be counter-productive given the small number of asylum seekers concerned.
“Dispatch the Oceanic Viking to Sri Lanka. As Sri Lankan citizens, the return of the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka would be an arguable course of action, and one likely to draw support from the more vicious-minded ‘toughs’ in the community and certain elements in the media. It would also attract considerable criticism on the correct grounds that it is likely to be returning genuine refugees to the authorities from whom they are seeking refuge. Moreover, they would be less likely to disembark in Sri Lanka than in Indonesia, leading us back to the issues outlined in Option 1.
“Transfer the asylum seekers to Christmas Island. On the basis that the legitimacy or otherwise of the asylum claims of the group is not affected by the location in which the assessment is made, it makes no difference whether the assessment is made on Christmas Island or elsewhere. However, the demonstration effect of the success of asylum seekers who have been rescued in Indonesian waters on others who may attempt to reach Australia in unsuitable vessels may increase the likelihood of the loss of vessels and those aboard them. It would also be portrayed as a major defeat both for the Government politically and for its border protection policies.”
Arriving at no viable solution, he ended with a suggestion: “A possible resolution may be for the permit for the Oceanic Viking to operate in Indonesian waters to be allowed to lapse by the Indonesian Government, thereby compelling its withdrawal to Christmas Island. This would permit the Government to portray the transfer to Christmas Island as a legal and diplomatic necessity.” Whatever its merit, this option had a ring of implausibility about it and in the event was not considered. So for all his laudable attempts to be helpful he came back to where he started and concluded that Rudd was deep in the proverbial with no place to go.
But an option not canvassed by Keane – patience – turned out to be the order of the day. It was exhibited by both the Indonesians and our Government, and eventually the asylum seekers left the boat reassured that they would be processed along the same timelines as apply on Christmas Island.
This was immediately branded by most of the media, hungry for an angle to hammer Rudd rather than seeking a way of resolving the impasse, as a ‘special deal’ to get them off the OV. This was jumped on by the Opposition and represented by the media as something shonky because all the other asylum seekers in Indonesia, who by the way are not Australia’s unique responsibility, were not being offered the same. Why should they be? These were unusual circumstances: Australia had inadvertently found itself with people on one of its vessels, rescued from drowning at sea in a humanitarian exercise, but now resistant to disembarkation except in Australia. Indonesia, having agreed to take them at the nearest port, vacillated, diverted the ship, and then allowed local officials to call the shots. Why is Indonesia not being criticized for not honouring its deal with Australia?
It is not surprising that Australia negotiated a ‘settlement’ with the asylum seekers, which turned out to be effective. What surprises me is that such a fuss was made over what the media insisted was ‘a special deal’. Who cares? What does it matter if there was ‘a special deal’? Mind you, Rudd might have saved himself much of the media angst if he has simply said that the special circumstances required special arrangements.
Who then is upset by the negotiated arrangements? The Sri Lankans are off the boat being processed by UNHCR, the situation has been resolved without further straining relations with Indonesia, the OV is on its way to continue its normal duties, and genuine refugees will soon be settled in Australia or perhaps another suitable country. Problem solved.
But have Rudd and his Immigration and Foreign Ministers receive a pat on the back from the media for resolving this matter? No. Instead it seized on the fact that the women and children, who were to be housed in a separate building alongside the housing for the men, which they have been, found that there were bars on the windows, hardly surprising as it is part of the detention complex. Soon there were women holding their children up at the bars visibly manipulating these circumstances to advance their cause and put pressure on the Government. The media was eagerly complicit with countless photos of smiling children ‘behind bars’. What was it trying to say? That Rudd has broken his promise that women and children would be held separately? But he hadn’t. That Rudd had deliberately placed children ‘behind bars’? But he hadn’t. The separate accommodation offered happened to have barred windows, something the Australian Government could not alter. Whatever the message, the media was determined to paint Rudd in a poor light.
The media was irresponsible too in its handling of our relations with Indonesia. Rudd never used the term ‘Indonesian Solution’ – the media coined it, much to the annoyance of Indonesian authorities who resented the idea of Indonesia becoming a repository for asylum seekers in the manner of Manus Island and Nauru. So while Rudd was negotiating his way through the treacherous waters of international diplomacy with our nearest neighbours, the media was stirring resentment among them. Moreover, it painted Indonesia’s detention centres in a very poor light, something that offended the Indonesians. Do the media accept any responsibility in this regard? No. And when President Yudhoyono postponed his December visit to Australia, the media interpreted this as a rebuff over the OV affair. But only this morning on Insiders, a video clip of a statement of an Indonesian minister refuted that.
Rudd has had heavy criticism and scorn heaped upon him over this episode. Not unexpectedly, the Opposition has tried to capitalize on it, but why has the media been so caustic? Rudd was labelled as so panic stricken by what seemed to be a Newspoll that reflected badly on his asylum seeker policy and actions (which being an outlier, it didn’t) that he ‘hit the airwaves’ with blanket coverage of his policy. Perhaps he hit the airwaves because he was determined to get his policy through. Some journalists, and maybe some of the public, found the ‘tough on people smugglers’ but ‘humane towards refugees’ contradictory, which it isn’t as any high school student could attest, so Rudd put extra effort into getting it across, which is what he needed to do.
Some said he was hiding behind bureaucratese when he read a letter in Question Time from the Immigration Department describing the processing arrangements on Bintan as ‘non-exceptional’, meaning they would be processed according to the usual Christmas Island timelines. Apparently ‘non-exceptional’ is a term with which journalists are unfamiliar, and therefore the object of cynical journo humour.
Rudd has been described as weak, uncertain of his policy, and having handled this situation ineptly. Brian Toohey, in the current Weekend Australian Financial Review, accuses him of ‘self importance’, of using a quick visit to Indonesia for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidential inauguration “to insist that Yudhoyono take an unpopular decision to let Australian customs vessel unload 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers at an Indonesian port rather than Christmas Island” which later in the piece he acknowledges was the ‘initial agreement’. Toohey avows that “Rudd continued to demand that Yudhoyono should risk his own political capital by sticking to the initial agreement.” This was at the conclusion of Toohey’s article on ‘abuse of power’, about which I suppose he thought this example made a fitting end. How factually correct is Toohey? How could he know Rudd forced Yudhoyono to make a decision he did not wish to make? He doesn’t say. We’ll never know. But it did make a good climax to the piece, and that’s what really counts!
Amid all the shouting and tumult, all the condemnation and disapproval, all the denigration and censure of Rudd and his handling of this matter, there has been precious little sound advice and wise counsel offered by the critics, who frankly don’t know the answers, don’t know what to do, don’t understand international diplomacy, and seem barely able to judge public opinion. Apart from a fall in personal ratings, there has scarcely been any significant change to Labor’s ratings since this event, as demonstrated on Insiders this morning when Barrie Cassidy showed the average TPP figure of 56/44 had been steady over many, many months. The people seem more balanced in their views than most commentators, a sad reflection on much of our media, which by comparison with the overseas papers mentioned earlier, looks paltry, ill informed, mediocre, sensationalist and worst of all, adversarial. What a sad state of affairs.
None of those overseas papers were Murdoch papers, Is there a message there?
What do you think?