Chris Bowen's Autonomous Foreign Policy Zone


What are the voters of Western Sydney asking from Tony Abbott this election? That was the question put to Treasurer Chris Bowen on Lateline last night. His reply: “My constituents would be telling him that they want to see not just slogans, but they want to see real, positive plans for the future” –  like the NBN and cost of living relief.

Many voters in Bowen’s multicultural seat of McMahon won’t be asking why they should vote Liberal, but why they should consider returning to Labor. This holds especially true for one of McMahon’s biggest ethnic enclaves: Australia's Iraqi Christians.

The Assyrians – as they are called – defected from Labor to the Liberal Party en masse at the 2011 NSW State election. The ALP's Ninos Khoshaba lost the state seat of Smithfield to Andrew Rohan – both Assyrians – with an 18.8 per cent swing. It was the first time the Libs had won the seat.

It's safe to assume that Khoshaba’s defeat at the state election had Bowen shitting bricks. He holds McMahon on a 7.8 per cent margin. The Australian reported in June that internal ALP polling conducted in October 2012 had Bowen narrowly losing the seat.

Ninos Khoshaba's father Anwar is a famous numbers man for the NSW Right in Western Sydney. He is also a former mayor of Fairfield, which falls inside both Smithfield and McMahon, and has a 22 per cent Assyrian population (a big slice of Australia's total Iraqi population).

In April 2011 Mark Latham wrote about him in The Spectator, calling the Khoshabas “the first ethnic branch stacking dynasty”. “Anwar is fantastic, it’s like he has an unlimited number of Assyrians to bring into the branches … As long as he’s around we will always have the numbers,” NSW Right doyen and former Smithfield MP Carl Scully reportedly told Latham back in the 1980s. But the end was in sight after a 2009 Fairfield council meeting, held to discuss a plaque for Assyrian war dead, turned nasty against Khoshaba senior, with the crowd crying “No more Labor”.

Bowen has been working the Assyrian community ever since to win back their support. In what may be among the most bizarre incentives offered during the pre-election pork barrelling season, Bowen has called for the establishment of an autonomous Christian zone in the Assyrian homeland, the Nineveh Plains, in Northern Iraq.

On 5 May, prior to Kevin Rudd's return to the prime ministership, Bowen and Rudd met in Fairfield with Louis (Sako) Raphael I, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church (the Vatican-aligned Iraqi Christian church). On 3 June, Bowen moved a motion in the House of Representatives calling for the creation of the Assyrian autonomous zone. “I believe the time for talk has passed and the time for action has arrived,” Bowen said (pdf).

Now Bowen is a senior player in the Rudd comeback. Was his motion – made before he returned to the Treasury benches – nothing more than a gesture of solidarity from a local member? His constituents don't see it that way.

Hermiz Shahen, the Deputy Secretary General of the Assyrian Universal Alliance (the Fairfield-based lobby group on the issue of the autonomous zone) told New Matilda that he has been grateful for Bowen's support.

“For years we have been struggling to get our rights in Iraq, so it was encouraging to see such a man as Chris Bowen fulfilling his promise and putting that motion in parliament,” Shahen said.

Shahen also says he has received assurances from Foreign Minister Bob Carr that the issue is being discussed at a high level, including with the US. “We hope that next time we meet with the Foreign Minister he will try to ask the Australian government to use the security council seat for this purpose … He [Carr] brought the issue up with Mrs Clinton when she came here last time to Australia.”

“I've got a note here I've received from his office that already that issue has been discussed with Mrs Clinton and both parties – America and Australian – have agreed to do much more to help the cause of the Assyrians in Iraq … It's good to remind him [Carr] about it too.”

Rudd, ever the campaigner, made several visits to Fairfield after he was deposed by Julia Gillard to shore up support for Bowen. In November 2011, Rudd and Bowen earmarked development money for Iraq's Christians at a Fairfield community forum. Bowen said he would follow up the issue with the UNHCR.

In 2012, Bowen pledged an extra 1000 humanitarian places for refugees in Syria – which “includes Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and Mandaeans” already fleeing persecution in Iraq. Many would already have “significant family links to Australia”.And then there is the more recent visit in May this year prior to the Rudd comeback, when the two met with community leaders and the Chaldean Patriarch.

Does the Rudd Government intend to follow through on the autonomous zone issue, or is Bowen just freelancing on foreign policy to win votes? NM asked Bowen's office, Carr's office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We received a short reply from DFAT:

“Australia is concerned to see the rights of Christians and other minorities respected in Iraq. We have raised these concerns with the Government of Iraq urging it to protect minority rights in accordance with relevant constitutional provisions. We have also highlighted the importance of an inclusive political system that transcends sectarian divisions within a unified Iraq. We are aware of the calls by some members of the Assyrian community for the establishment of an autonomous area in Ninewah. This is a matter for the Government of Iraq.”

Hermiz Shahen and the AUA disagree; for them it is very much an issue of international support. “The thing is that Assyrians have no country that is standing up for our rights. So Australia would be the first country that is actually supporting our cause – and it can do much,” he said.

Iraq's majority Shia and the Kurds, who run most of Northern Iraq, have no objections to the autonomous zone, Shahen says. But he does anticipate pushback from the Sunnis who are the major Muslim presence in the proposed Mosul region site.

“The matter is the rights of the people. If we deserve that or not, that's the question the international community has to answer,” he said.

Dr Matthew Gray, an academic from the ANU's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies who recently visited Northern Iraq, has a third view. “I'm amazed he [Bowen] would say that … This is a stupid idea,” he told NM.

Australia's dealings are mainly with the central government in Baghdad, Gray said, because we're one of the few Western nations without an embassy in the “quasi-state” Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) zone. The Kurds, who Gray describes as “very effective soft authoritarians”, have been locking down their claim to Iraq's north and thumbing their noses at Baghdad by signing separate agreements for oil export.

“[Promoting the autonomous zone] probably wouldn't damage our relations with Baghdad, but it would upset the Kurds,” he said. The KRG has fought for independence and won't take kindly to calls for further splits by other ethnic groups like the Turkmens.

As well as having an ethnic-indigenous claim to parts of Northern Iraq, the Assyrians have long sought an autonomous territory to escape a history of violent oppression, including persecution during the Armenian Genocide. Since the fall of Saddam they have been under especial attack. A string of bombings in Mosul in 2008 was a notorious episode.

During the dictatorship some enjoyed relative freedom, as long as they didn't proselytise. Saddam's foreign minister Tariq Aziz was the most senior Christian in the regime; the Vatican's intervention saved him from a postwar execution. Raphael I Bidawid, the Chaldean Patriarch until 2003, was another high-profile collaborator, and was often complimentary of the regime: "Christians here are privileged. Saddam gives us what we want, listens to us and protects us.”

Bidawid was at one stage the chaplain to the Iraq Petroleum company; now Iraqi Christians are contesting $10 trillion of oil reserves under the proposed site in the region of Kirkuk and Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. The Christians are the self-described “meat in the sandwich” between the local Sunni Muslim majority and the KRG, who will host a glitzy Chevron/ExxonMobil sponsored oil and gas conference in December this year.

Australian-listed company Oil Search – which owns a 29 per cent stake in the multi-billion dollar PNG LNG plant run by ExxonMobil and underwritten by the Federal Government's Export Finance and Insurance Corporation – is already hard at work. The company “flowed oil and gas” to cheers at its Taza site in Kurdistan in April.

“If commercial flow rates can be established, Taza … could have a meaningful impact on Oil Search's value,” their website says. The KRG enjoys a 20 per cent share. Oil Search owns 60 per cent. The other 20 per cent belonging to a subdiary of French “supermajor” Total, whose CEO was recently acquitted in the trial for Iraq's Oil For Food program (he may yet be charged for allegedly bribing Iranian officials).

Questions put by NM to Bowen and about whether the Rudd Government would support Australian oil ventures in Iraq, through EFIC or other means, were not answered. Matthew Gray said he would be “cautious about advising oil companies to go into the KRG because they might burn their relations with Baghdad.”

The Christians say they could be the moderating force in this violent region; there was another attack in Kirkuk last month that killed at least 31, according to Reuters. Autonomy from the central government is supported by Iraq's figurehead Kurdish President Jalal Talabani but as Shahen said, Mosul's Sunni majority are not thrilled by the idea.

So who are Rudd, Carr and Bowen listening to on the autonomous zone issue – except the voters of Fairfield? Certainly not Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I – he opposes the creation of an autonomous Christian state. In an interview in 2009 Raphael told AsiaNews, “A Christian ghetto can inevitably lead to endless sectarian, religious and political clashes. Our freedom will be reduced”.

In January this year (before his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI) he was more explicit:

“Iraq is not only rich in oil but also in water, land, and could attract tourists … The US and Western plans for the Middle East explain the situation, I think. The goal of these plans is to divide us along ethnic and religious lines. And the countries of the region are driving this project in accordance with their own specific interests.”

Hermiz Shahen says the Patriarch and other Chaldean clergy – whose churches have been bombed and desecrated along with the independent, ancient Assyrian Church of the East, the other major Christian sect in the region – want to appear neutral but are really the ones playing “deep politics”.

“All they're concerned with is that their church is protected, that they can perform their prayers every day,” he said. “Chaldeans oppose it because they take their instructions from Rome. But their political parties in Iraq, they're all in support of this Nineveh province area … The Church has split the nation, as always.”

Gray is sceptical about whether the zone would even buy security for Iraq's Christians, “who enjoy a comparative level of safety in the KRG”. Bowen doesn't have such doubts. “The Treasurer of course stands by his comments and his motion,” a spokesman told NM by email.

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.