Neighbourhood watch


Howard and Downer don’t like to admit that Australians have become targets for extremism in Indonesia.

At the time of the Bali bombings, they both publicly rejected any notion that it was Australia’s alliance with the United States in the ‘war on terror’ that had spurned the attack, and were reluctant to hypothesise about motivations for the bombings – beyond the fact that the perpetrators were ‘evil’.

Yesterday’s bombing outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta is proving much harder for the Howard government to paint as a random, heinous act. There are obviously groups within Indonesia that seek to harm Australian interests.

Contrary to the rhetoric of ‘pure evil’ peddled by Bush and his cronies, there are complex reasons why people are driven to carry out acts like yesterday’s attack.

By no means does that mean Australians should bow down to the demands of terrorists. It does mean we need to look deeper in to the causes of terrorism within the Asia Pacific region.

Simply fighting the global ‘war on terror’ with greater force will not be enough. Australian politicians must develop a more sophisticated understanding of the politics of our region.

Historically, engagement with the region we live in has proved challenging for leaders on both sides of politics. Cultural misunderstandings and diplomatic mishaps have punctuated the careers of many an Australian government. So in the lead-up to our federal election, how do the main players fare when it comes to neighbourly relations?

When Howard came to power in 1996, he put an end to what he described as the obsessive ‘navel-gazing’ of the Keating era. Under Howard’s rule, we ceased to question our role within Asia, and took control of ‘our patch’ “ deputy sheriff-style.

As for Latham, he has made noises about strengthening cultural ties with the region, but like many of Labor’s positions, it’s hard to know how this would weather under the pressure of practice.

So far, both leaders have responded to the Jakarta bombing in remarkably similar ways even to the point of using the same words.

In the election campaign however, the bombing probably amounts to a point for Howard, and his tough stance on national security.

Howard’s main interest in the region is in ensuring tighter border control and ‘good governance’ to block the paths for terrorists to enter Australia. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, if nothing is done our neighbourhood will become ‘lawless badlands, ruled more by criminals than by legitimate governments’ a perfect breeding ground for terrorism.

Dr Robert Wolfgramm, a lecturer at the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, describes the Pacific region as ‘a mess; post World War II policies have failed.’

To deal with this ‘mess’, the Howard government’s focus has been on restoring law and order. But Wolfgramm suggests a counter strategy to Canberra’s ‘push to locate an Australian presence’ in the Pacific:

‘If each Pacific state can be reinvigorated with nationalist pride, robust self-direction, independence and the like, the threats that come from outsiders may be better addressed’, he says.

Dr Helen Hill, a senior lecturer in sociology of the Asia Pacific region at Victoria University, describes the level of understanding Australian politicians have of the region as ‘quite depressing’. She believes they need to have ‘walked the streets’ of any country they are engaging with ‘long before they become politicians’. Yet in Australia:

‘Most politicians of the current generation haven’t [walked the streets]and even the foreign affairs people – a lot of them haven’t gone to Asia until they’ve had their first posting.

‘If your first trip is organised by the embassy’, continues Hill, ‘it’s too late to get a good knowledge of the country’.

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