Historically, regional conflicts start as a reaction to a perceived threat. They are usually accidental and result from misunderstandings that develop and escalate between two forces mobilised and facing off against each other, each believing they have a responsibility to protect their national interests. In most cases common sense applies and the commanders of each force will sort out their differences and at the end of the day, each will go their separate ways, with neither having to lose face. But, occasionally things do get out of hand.
There are occasions where inexperienced commanders find themselves in unexpected situations and need to seek advice from their Command Base. In the process, the exact details of the situation can be overstated, understated or misunderstood which can lead to vital information being transmitted incorrectly. This incorrect information is then relayed to another higher authority, usually a government official, where the original detail has been sufficiently corrupted to create a false impression in the minds of those who make the ultimate decision to act. This can happen in every potential conflict in which those giving the final orders are not eye witnesses. It can also happen where decisions have to be made quickly, under pressure and by local commanders in the field, in the air or on the water. All it takes is for one commander to be placed in a position where he/she deems it appropriate to issue a ‘fire’ order. It’s that easy. It has happened in the past and it will happen in the future.
Australia and Indonesia have a common problem, that of non-citizens of either country entering one country in order to get to the other. The first thing to establish is the intention of the non-citizens. Are their actions threatening in any way, be it militarily, politically or socially? In the matter that exists currently between Australia and Indonesia none of these intentions apply. The non-citizens are simply seeking a safe haven. At the very least what we have here is a humanitarian matter, something dozens of other countries also have to deal with. In any event the intention of the non-citizens cannot be properly established until they are interviewed. That should be the sum of it. But in Australia this matter has been turned into a political issue which began with the Tampa incident in August, 2001. At that time, Prime Minister John Howard was facing electoral defeat and used Tampa to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the human psyche, that of fear, and refused to allow the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa carrying several hundred asylum seekers whose boat had sunk, to dock at any Australian port. It worked. The well-being of those rescued by the Tampa was given second priority over the political interests of the Liberal Party who won the subsequent election and who have enjoyed the political benefits ever since.
Fear of boat people has a foundation…but the foundation is false. The underbelly of the fear isn’t real; it has no authenticity. Minorities are only seen as such when they are perceived to be a threat; either real or imagined. And that’s where fear comes into play. When minorities are seen to be threatening, that creates fear. And when they are highly visible, then the fear is exponential. That is why boat people are always under attack; because people fear them; it’s an irrational fear built on a false foundation but it’s a feeling that is hard to explain. Fear is, and has always been, used to manipulate society. Politicians use fear to win our vote. The fear of being attacked, the fear that terrorists are planning another 9/11, the fear of a nuclear war; the fear that some middle-eastern country objects to the way we live our lives and represents some threat to us. Fear of boat people is utterly irrational and we know it. So we hide behind the veneer of queue jumping or population swell. When we face our fears, challenge them to prove their validity, they fail; they evaporate.
But now, in the name of border protection, the stakes have been raised. Clearly, as a result of Australia’s admitted naval incursions into Indonesian waters, that country’s sovereign interests have been compromised and they have no alternative but to increase their naval presence in the region. Our navy’s action was a violation of Indonesia’s sovereignty. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in his obsession with stopping the boats, has gone a step too far. In his determination to fulfil an election promise motivated more for its political implications than any concern for the personal well-being of the people in those boats, he has created the very circumstances that can, and might, lead to a situation where two opposing naval commanders will need to seek orders from their respective governments. It will only take one poorly transmitted message, like the one that generated the ‘children overboard’ saga to have serious consequences when opposing vessels encounter each other.
The only way to solve the problem is by both countries working together in association with the UNHCR to establish a regional solution. That was, and is, Labor’s policy. It is not Coalition policy. The Coalition has chosen to act unilaterally and stop, turn around and/or tow successive boats carrying asylum seekers back towards Indonesia increasing the likelihood of following them into Indonesian waters. This was Coalition policy taken to the Australian people in 2013 and they won. The Australian people have an irrational fear about unauthorised boats arriving on our shores albeit in remote areas. As our government continues to play this dangerous game, we should be asking: are we prepared for what will ultimately result from going a step too far?
John Kelly blogs at: The View From My Garden