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 Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Australia's Neighbour Embraces Kevin Rudd and the Labour Party

  Welcoming a different direction for a new Australia


Sabam Siagian
(Sabam Siagian was senior editor and first chief editor of The Jakarta Post (1983-1991), and served as Indonesian ambassador to Australia from 1991 to 1995)

Read here in Jakarta Post

As expected, since various polls have predicted it throughout the year, the Labor Party convincingly emerged as the victor from Australia's general election last Saturday.

This political event means the end for Prime Minister John Howard's political career. As leader of a coalition of his own Liberal Party and the National Party, Howard has led Australia along a conservative policy avenue for more than 11 and a half years.

As if to underline the finality of the passing of an era, John Howard could even lose his own seat in the electorate of Bennelong, on Sydney's north shore.

He misinterpreted his election victory in March 1996, defeating then PM Paul Keating's Labor Party, as if it were a clear indication that the majority of the Australian electorate rejected Keating's outward looking foreign policy initiatives.

Keating's political style was perhaps too abrasive but his grand strategy was sound and correct, as its very purpose was to safeguard Australia's geopolitical future in the rapidly changing Asia-Pacific region.

As he stated so often, always using graphic language (I am paraphrasing here), Australia could not escape the vast strategic shifts taking place in the Asia-Pacific region by attaching an outboard motor to the country that could move Australia in the direction of North America.

What actually took place during the years of Howard, to borrow Keating's illustration, was that two "outboard motors" have been propelling Australia's historical movement.

Its economy was very much stimulated by impressive export figures of mining products to China in order to satisfy its insatiable demand caused by double-digit economic growth, a sort of "outboard motor" that could push the country incrementally within China's power radius.

However, Howard's all-out support for President George W. Bush Jr.'s brand of U.S. unilateral global policy (especially, welcoming the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, which turned out to be hastily planned and poorly implemented, probably caused by an arrogance of power only a mono-superpower such as the U.S. could afford to entertain) has acted as the other "outboard motor", nudging Australia to become a semi-puppet state of America.

The description of Australia as a "sheriff" in Asia protecting U.S. interests has been attributed to Howard, something he denies, but it does reflect indirectly the mentality of a semi-puppet state affected by an inflated sense of self-importance.

Howard simply cannot fathom how his meek kow-towing to Washington has significantly reduced the efficacy of Australia's foreign policy in Asia, despite his numerous visits to various Asian capitals (or, in the case of Indonesia, to the more pleasant alternative of Bali) and Canberra's various generous aid programs.

Australia's political body language sends off signals that are viewed as an extension of American arrogance and insensitivity.

Now Australia has a new prime minister, young (50 years old) and forward-looking. He has stated that he is the prime minister of all Australians and is only interested in Australia's future.

The fact that he speaks Mandarin with a correct accent does not only demonstrate his linguistic ability but, more importantly, reveals his empathy for the inner psyche of, arguably, the most important power in Asia for years to come.

I am convinced that Kevin Rudd will resurrect Paul Keating's grand policy of a broad engagement with a modernizing Asia, so abruptly halted with the rise of John Howard in 1996.

The new prime minister has stated that the strengthening of the Australian education system is high on his priority list. I assume that will also include the restoration of Asian Studies in various Australian universities, which became drastically unpopular during the Howard administration.

A pool of competent specialists on different aspects of Asian developments will provide a solid underpinning for the conduct of a rigorous Australian foreign policy. We, Australia's Asian neighbors, welcome such a foreign policy as a manifestation of a new Australia that will wholeheartedly cooperate toward the completion of a new geopolitical architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.

A technologically modern Australia with a robust economy that is ready and willing to share its advantages with the rest of Asia, poised for a quantum leap towards full modernization, will surely be welcomed with a genuine recognition that it is a part of us.

Towards the end of Paul Keating's remarkable book, Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia-Pacific (Sydney 2000), the author posed these probing questions:

"Is our country's future in Asia? Will hundreds of thousands of jobs continue to depend on Asian markets? Will our security still be shaped there? Do we want to play a role in Asia's political institutions? Is Asia really where our vital interests lie? If the answer is yes, we have no alternative to engagement with it."
Further down that page (297), Keating displayed his sense of realism when he wrote: "... it is not necessary to romanticize Asia to see our engagement with it as one of the most exciting enterprises in which Australia can be involved."

Prime minister-elect Kevin Rudd and the Australian Labor Party will provide that sort of visionary leadership, inspired by the set of questions posed by his immediate Labor predecessor, and will shape a new Australia to become an indispensable cornerstone of the 21st century geopolitical architecture encompassing a stable and dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

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