Can Howard Play Hardball?


Alexander Downer says he is perplexed and upset about accusations that he did not do enough to save the life of Nguyen Tuong Van.

Well, he did not, and the result speaks for itself.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Downer was obviously moved by the plight of Van Nguyen when it became obvious, in the last week of Nguyen’s life, that his formal diplomatic endeavours had fallen on deaf ears. That emotion might have been better deployed earlier, more creatively and in a less pro forma fashion.

The art of diplomacy is played out in a number of different ways. At one level it is formal and structured, and as part of the relations between sovereign States this approach is necessary. Seasoned diplomats call this ‘going through the motions.’

At the same time that this formal interplay is taking place each side watches body language, use of words and phrases, and the general interaction between negotiators. This is called ‘picking up the vibes’ and requires sensitivity. Neither Howard nor Downer appears particularly skilled at picking up the vibes.

Then of course there are the occasions when neither side gives a fig about the vibes, because the exchange has nothing to do with achieving an outcome and has everything to do with a public performance.

There is, however, another type of diplomatic exchange. It involves all sides seeking a positive outcome to a difficult problem affecting the national interest they represent. Tough negotiations and hardball are the hallmark of these negotiations and they normally, at least initially, take place behind closed doors.

If nothing is achieved behind closed doors one or both parties might seek to involve public opinion through the media. This might involve an unattributable leak, or a media briefing that details part or all of what has been discussed.

This might cause an initial breakdown in negotiations, but the strength of public opinion will hopefully persuade the negotiators to resume their talks. It is a strategy with risks. The upshot might be that nothing is achieved and relations between the States involved will be worse. It needs to be assessed whether short term deterioration will be overcome by strengths in other areas of the relationship including trade, defence, education, health and other long term needs and dependencies.

The Australian Government, through Downer and Howard, could have been tough-minded enough to seek nothing less than a positive outcome from the Government of Singapore on the Van Nguyen case, using all the means at their disposal. After all, the Howard Government has shown itself, at least domestically, to be adroit at deploying the tactic of ‘whatever it takes.’

Singapore trains its Air Force pilots in Australia and bases half of its Air Force on our soil. The continuation of this arrangement might have been used as a lever.

The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has stated that we need Singapore’s involvement (that is, the sharing of intelligence) in the war on terror and that therefore the defence relationship should not be put on the line. However, in my opinion, any break in the intelligence relationship could be covered from other sources, and in any event, would soon be restored through mutual need.

Thanks to Nicholson

To get a remission of the death sentence would have required eyeball to eyeball negotiations (and perhaps threats) to the Singapore Government. An informal discussion between the Australian and Singaporean Prime Ministers at the recent CHOGM in Malta was not in that category, and I would venture to suggest was a pro forma exchange designed as a sop to Australian public opinion.

No doubt Howard and Downer had difficulty in coming out strongly against the death penalty because of their support for it in the cases of the Bali bombers and Saddam Hussein.

Howard also has the problem of the United States. How could he strongly criticise the death penalty without offending his close friend and ally George W Bush, who condoned the death penalty when he was Governor of the State of Texas, and continues to find nothing objectionable with it?

There are many examples of hardball diplomacy achieving positive outcomes; the most famous in recent times was the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. Let me give one example from my own career as a diplomat.

In 1984, two nurses one British and the other Australian who were living in a country in the Middle East were picked up by the local police for having consumed alcohol. They went before a court and were sentenced to a period in prison and 90 lashes each. All this occurred before either the British or Australian Embassies were advised of the situation.
On hearing of the sentence handed down, I got in touch with the British Embassy. As Charge? (Acting Ambassador), I met with a senior British diplomat and we worked out a strategy to put to the Foreign Ministry. We had little time as the lashes were scheduled to take place in a few days. None of this was in the public domain.

We met with senior officials and said that if their country had been angry and embarrassed over a film depicting the beheading of a princess for engaging in premarital sex, it would be nothing compared to the outrage we would engender by giving details of the case, and the penalty imposed, to major media outlets in Australia and Britain. Furthermore, I said I would release details of a case relating to the son of a senior diplomat from the country who had been picked up for drink driving on Northbourne Avenue in Canberra no charges had been pressed because of the diplomatic status of his father.

We offered them a way out: drop the sentence and the lashings, return passports and personal belongings and deport the nurses to their home countries. Both embassies would provide consular assistance and agreed to escort the nurses onto planes.

Some time later they responded and agreed to the deal.

I really don’t believe Howard and Downer played diplomatic hardball in order to save the life of Van Nguyen. They were out-bullied and out-bluffed by Singapore.

An increasing number of people in Australia are beginning to see Howard, Downer and other members of Cabinet for what they are: men and women of straw who, in the absence of respect, seek to rely for the exercise of their authority on laws better suited to single-party police States.

Van Nguyen has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the future of the Australian and Singaporean Governments.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.