Mr Rudd must be a bit surprised to be criticised from fellow Australians on the left and right for what he said about Sri Lankan refugees. But really the question is not about him – it is about ordinary, decent Labor voters.
Speaking on behalf of Australian development and aid NGOs, Marc Purcell, Director of the Australian Council for International Development, says: “The [Australian] Government needs to tackle the problem of why people are fleeing at its source… [It] needs to step up its dialogue with the Sri Lankan Government to urgently get these camps closed.”
Labor MP Michael Danby has described the phase “illegal immigration” – a phrase that Rudd has used this phrase on several occasions – as unbalanced and hysterical in this context.
Another surprise were pro-refugee comments from Paul Howes, who heads one of the nation’s biggest and most conservative unions.
Revd Tim Costello, a former national president of the Baptist Union of Australia, said: “…where Dietrich Bonhoeffer got into real trouble was not attacking the Nazi government, it was defending Jewish refugees. That’s actually the real lesson, the moral lesson from Bonhoeffer.” (Mr Rudd has said Bonhoeffer is his hero.)
Journalist and film-maker, Bob Ellis writes in the Sydney Morning Herald to warn Rudd against worsening “our image as racist tormentors of desperate children before the civilised world.”
But most interesting is Laurie Oakes, one of the most influential political journalists in Australia and weekly columnist for the Daily Telegraph. In an article entitled “Rudd needs to talk tough to Sri Lanka” Oakes says it like it is:
“We’ve heard Kevin Rudd promising tough action to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. We’ve heard him condemn people smugglers as vermin. What we have not heard from the prime minister is any criticism of the Sri Lankan Government for creating a situation which drives ethnic Tamils into the arms of smugglers in the first place.”
“The best way to stop Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka and paying people smugglers to get them to Australia is to make things more tolerable in their own country. But has Rudd heavied the government in Colombo? Not so as you’d notice. Easier by far – and electorally much more advantageous – to thunder on about taking a hard line on illegal immigration. Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser accuses the coalition of “scratching the redneck nerve” by attempting to exploit the recent increase in boat arrivals. But Rudd is scratching the same nerve.”
Oakes knows what he is talking about. The Murdoch owned Telegraph is known for its stridently right wing views. It appeals to the conservative working class – the Howard battlers (cf the Reagan Democrats) – that Rudd seeks to impress. So his next comment is particularly noteworthy:
“It is unlikely the asylum seeker issue has anything like the same potency that made it such an effective political weapon for John Howard in 2001. Back then it resonated powerfully because of the September 11 attacks in the US, combined with instability in the region. As Paul Kelly writes in his book The March Of Patriots, “The boats were framed in an ‘invasion’ context, resisted by the Australian Navy as the world contemplated the smouldering ruins of New York. For Australians, there were two paradigms on display: Muslims as terrorists and Muslims as asylum seekers.” The context is different now.”
Oakes is – rightly – scathing about Mr Rudd’s claim that he has done what he can:
“The Government denies it has failed to exert real pressure on Colombo. The official line is that “Australia and the international community continue to watch closely”. That will have them shaking in their boots. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, we are told, has spoken to his Sri Lankan counterpart six times this year about ensuring the protection of civilians and the need for reconciliation. Smith also had a word to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Egypt in July. But everyone knows that Rudd drives foreign affairs. If he considers an issue to be important, he takes it over.
When Australia wanted that boatload of Tamils intercepted, it was Rudd – not Smith – who called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. If Rudd picked up the phone to the Sri Lankan President, too, and did a bit of tub-thumping, it might make a difference. But it seems he’d rather beat the anti-asylum seeker drum.”
So what could Mr Rudd have done that he hasn’t done?
As a signatory to the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions – which states that “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character” (Article 50) – he could have challenged the Government of Sri Lanka about its indiscriminate shelling of civilians.
He could have sent Sri Lanka a warning signal by abstaining on the IMF loan (as did the USA and UK). And it could be making clear he will act when the vote on the 2nd tranche comes up.
He could have backed the call by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes by both sides, and could have said in public that he is holding President Rajapaksa to his promise – made to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – that Sri Lanka would take measures to address the violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
Today, Mr Rudd could be calling the camps what they are – internment camps (as Navi Pillay and the UK Government have done).
Rather than deal with Sri Lanka as primarily an immigration problem – a bit like dealing with a terrorist attack as if it were a health and safety challenge – he could have defined this as a foreign policy crisis requiring joined up action.
And he could have told the Sri Lankan government it expects to see the people it claims are LTTE combatants charged in accordance with international standards and ensure that family members and humanitarian agencies – in particular the ICRC – have immediate access.
Most importantly, he could be using Australia’s influence – within the Commonwealth and with China, for example – to get a faster resolution to this crisis.
It is clear Mr Rudd has committed himself to being tough on the symptoms of war crimes and major human rights abuse – ie the people who are able to escape. So why on earth isn’t he also tough on the causes of such an exodus? In so doing he could use one stone to kill three birds: gain the respect of “Howard battlers”, retain the support of concerned Labour supporters and look good on the international stage. Of course it’s easier to pick an easy fight with progressives within his party. Perhaps he thinks it looks good. But what did this approach deliver for Tony Blair and the UK Labour Party in the long term?
With the Indians and even the UN talking tough, and with the new Japanese government reviewing its options, Mr Rudd is looking as if he is behind the curve and part of the problem. What a waste of talent, especially for a man who prides himself on his diplomatic skills.
But the real question in all of this is for Labor supporters: will they stand by and just let this happen?
We get the leaders we deserve and Mr Rudd could really do with more courageous followers right now. Mr Rudd isn’t a bad man – indeed he defines himself as a committed Christian. In fact, Mr Rudd is just doing what many world leaders have done – turned their face to what is happening and sought to substitute platitudes for real action. At least that we can thank him for making it so obvious!
That is why he needs to be challenged by those who have some influence over him. And that is also why Mr Rudd warrants international attention.