Australia Loves Democracy In Springtime


Eritrea is placed last in Reporters Without Borders’ worldwide press freedom index, worse even than North Korea. The same organisation also considers Isaias Afewerkino’s regime no less dangerous than that of Muammar Gaddafi or Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, in terms of brutality and human rights abuses.

And yet the Australian government extended a warm welcome to Ahmed Haj Ali, Eritrean Minister of Mines, in late 2009, and Australian support for Afewerki has remained steady throughout the Arab Spring.

Australian mining companies have various interests in Eritrea, including copper and gold interests. Indeed, Australia has supported dictators across North Africa and the Middle East when trade and mining interests have been at stake. Australian companies with investments in Eritrea include Chalice Gold, South Border Mines, and Gippsland Ltd, who have interests in gold, potassium and copper.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was quick to welcome the news of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s death, delivering a message of congratulations to the Libyan rebels and the National Transitional Council. Gilliard claimed that, "Australia is proud to have been a strong and active supporter of the Libyan people’s struggle for freedom". This statement merits closer inspection.

In 2004, Gaddafi renounced Libya’s nuclear weapons program, which led to a re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Britain and much of Europe. But as Fairfax journalist Mark Davis documented, the Howard government resumed diplomatic relations with the regime after secret negotiations in 2002, two years prior to this. Then trade minister Mark Vaile accompanied a business delegation to Libya in July 2002, allowing Australian resources giant Woodside Petroleum to secure oil exploration in the area outside the city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, as well as in Northern and Western Libya. And Gaddafi’s second son Saif Gaddafi visited Australia in early 2003, meeting with acting PM John Anderson. Improvement in Libyan human rights was not a condition of the re-establishment of ties between the two countries.

Woodside continue to deal with other governments in North Africa that have questionable democratic credentials, working with the regimes of LIberia, Sierra Leone and Algeria, in order to secure oil and gas interests. Algeria is another country that faced a brief uprising during the Arab Spring. The company even cooperated with the military junta in Mauritania, putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the hands of the regime, again to secure oil interests. 

The Australian company Oil Search Ltd also had interests in Libya prior to the uprising, including major offshore oil operations. There was no change in policy toward Libya upon the Labor party winning government in 2007.

Other western nations that re-established ties with Gaddafi in 2004 showed a similar lack of concern for human rights and democracy in the country. In fact, cooperation with the regime increased. Documents found in the office of the Libyan spy agency, abandoned after the fall of Tripoli, show that the CIA and its British equivalent MI6 used Tripoli as a site for extraordinary rendition, sending terror suspects there, despite the regime’s reputation for torture.

When the Mubarak regime fell in Egypt, Julia Gillard said, "The future of Egypt is in the hands of the people of Egypt as it properly should be. We understand their very legitimate desire for change, for freedom, and for democracy". Kevin Rudd declared, "This is an extraordinary and historic event for the people of Egypt". But again, the track record of the Australian government in dealing with Egypt suggests an apparent indifference to the concerns of the Egyptian people.

The last parliamentary election to be held in Egypt before the Arab Spring was on 5 December 2010. Many human rights groups agreed that the election was the most fraudulent ever in Egypt. The poll was also criticised by many nations, including the United States. However the Australian government did not publicly show any concern over this apparent lack of democratic freedom. Indeed, six days after the election, Rudd met with Hosni Mubarak in the presidential palace in Cairo saying about Australia-Egypt relations, "Our commercial relationship is strong. Our political relationship is good. We are now exploring … further areas for cooperation in international forums". 

The strong commercial relationship refers to Australian mining interests in Egypt, which include operations in the oil and gas sectors, as well as gold and other minerals. For example, the Australian companies Santos Ltd and Oil Search Ltd have conducted oil and gas operations in the country, Centamin Ltd have conducted gold mining operations, and Gippsland Ltd are involved in the exploration of tantalum, a rare earth metal used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronic devices. Prior to the uprising, Egypt was Australia’s major trading partner in the region. Since Egypt’s exports to Australia were minimal, this was mostly comprised of Australian mining investments in Egypt, as well as Australian exports of wheat and other agricultural products.

Again, no concerns about democracy or human rights were raised during this meeting.

The President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who recently announced he would step down "in the coming days", has so far endured the most prolonged uprising of the Arab Spring. Yemen is a major market for Australian exports in the Middle East, mostly wheat and dairy products, and passenger motor vehicles. Australia is the ninth largest source of imports into the country. 

In early December 2010, prior to meeting with Mubarak, Foreign Minister Rudd met with Abu Bakr Al Qirbi, Foreign Minister of Yemen, at the seventh annual Regional Security Summit, Manama Dialogue, held in Bahrain. Rudd expressed an intention to boost cooperation between the two countries in all areas, and to consider increasing developmental aid to Yemen. 

As for the first domino to fall in the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali enjoyed good relations with the west generally, including Australia, with the two countries enjoying a healthy trade relationship. And in line with the general trend, prior to the country’s uprising there were no public statements from the Australian government raising the possibility of repression in Tunisia.

The fact that the Australian government supported, or at least cooperated with, all of the now-ousted dictators may not be surprising. Successive governments have remained tight-lipped about the repression of peoples throughout North Africa and the Middle East — and then declared support for human rights and democracy as it becomes inevitable that an uprising will succeed.

As yet there have been no expressions of support from Australia for the pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria. And the Australian government continues to support other repressive regimes in the region that have not yet faced a rebellion.

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.