Features | Politics | Oceania

Alexander Downer on the Poll

The Diplomat speaks with the former Australian foreign minister about the election and what a Liberal government might do.

Anthony Fensom

Labor faces an embarrassing backdown on its proposed Timor-Leste refugee processing centre, with the party likely to reinstate the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ of its predecessor Howard government, according to Alexander Downer.

In an interview with The Diplomat, Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister and current UN special envoy to Cyprus said the Howard government in which he served had also been rebuked by Timor-Leste over establishing such a centre.

‘An East Timor (Timor-Leste) processing centre is never going to happen,’ Downer said. ‘To establish a processing centre there has to be a legal framework within which it operates, it can’t operate in a legal vacuum and the Australian government presumably wouldn’t want it to. You need legislation in East Timor in order to do that and that means you need the support of its parliament, and that’s not going to be forthcoming at any time.’

Downer, who served as foreign minister in the conservative Liberal/Nationals coalition government from 1996 to 2007, said the Timor-Leste government had told Canberra that it wan’t in favour of such a centre as it would cause ‘complications.’

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed East Timor as the likely destination for an offshore refugee processing centre on July 6. Gillard later backtracked on her proposal following negative reaction from East Timor, human rights groups and Australia’s Opposition parties, and after a cautious response from regional leaders.

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The asylum seeker issue was one of the policy priorities announced by Gillard on assuming the leadership in June, with Labor seeking to negate Opposition attacks over the rising number of refugee boats reaching Australian territory.

Under the proposal raised by the new prime minister—and discussed with Indonesia and New Zealand along with East Timor—asylum seekers would be processed under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in East Timor, and then sent to UN signatory nations such as New Zealand.

However, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report, Timor-Leste’s Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres said his country was ‘very unlikely’ to accept such a centre, while the country’s main opposition party Fretilin also rejected the proposal.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott accused Gillard of offering a quick fix that would unravel, and while Timor Leste’s President Ramos-Horta was reportedly more receptive, the response from the government was overwhelmingly negative.

Abbott has pledged to ‘stop the boats’ as one of his key campaign promises, endorsing former Prime Minister John Howard’s declaration that ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’

According to an ABC News report, Downer ‘personally called the president of Nauru to discuss reopening the Pacific nation’s asylum seeker processing centre,’ an action that drew criticism from Labor for allegedly violating UN regulations.

Labor MP Melissa Parke, who chairs Australia’s UN Parliamentary Group, was quoted as saying Downer should quit his UN role if he wished to participate in Australian politics.

But Downer denied breaching any regulations, telling The Diplomat that it was a ‘seventeenth order issue’ and that Labor should concentrate on its political opponents in Parliament and not him.

‘If the suggestion here is that I’m not able to speak to heads of government because I work for the UN, well I’ve never seen a UN code that people in the UN are not meant to speak to heads of government,’ he said.

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The Coalition has already held talks with Nauru about reopening the centre, with Abbott pledging to make it one of his first acts as prime minister.

Downer said the tiny island republic with a total land area of just 21 square kilometres, ‘met the test of common sense’ as Australia’s most likely option for offshore refugee processing—a policy previously opposed by Labor.

‘There’s a consensus in Nauru for it and I don’t foresee that there would be any problems at all in reestablishing the processing centre at Nauru,’ he said. ‘Presumably the reason that the Labor Party doesn’t want to reestablish it in Nauru is because they endlessly attacked the government over the Pacific Solution. Now of course they want to implement the Pacific Solution, but they don’t want to do it in too brazen a way.’

Downer also criticised Gillard for not seriously considering foreign policy issues since her recent accession to the leadership.

Asked about reports that Gillard was backing away from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s proposed Asia Pacific community—the subject of an earlier Diplomat article (“Rudd Pacific Plan Lost at Sea?”)—Downer said: ‘I don’t get the sense that she’s thought a great deal about such issues. Apparently they’re not polling so that’s why she’s not talking about them.

‘The APc concept as promoted by Rudd is not going to happen. The institutions in the region will of course gradually evolve over the years. That was a diplomatic gaffe by the government, and as they say, once bitten, twice shy. I don’t suppose Gillard will want to revisit that.

Having served in the same cabinet with Abbott, Downer said the Liberal leader would bring a pragmatic approach to foreign policy issues if elected, with a greater emphasis on bilateral ties instead of Labor’s professed focus on multilateralism and the United Nations.

‘[Abbott’s] approach to foreign policy would be in the traditions of the Liberal Party – it would be practical and pragmatic and focused on the promotion of Australia’s national interests, not necessarily on grand schemes on redesigning the world,’ he said.

‘He would work hard at the key bilateral relationships with Indonesia, China and the US, Japan, India. What he would be is pragmatic—he wouldn’t be driven by some ideological zeal for paradigms and patterns.’

Policy failures

Downer said Australian foreign policy had regressed under the Rudd/Gillard government, with the next government having to shore up ties with key allies such as the United States, China, Japan and India.

‘With the passing of the Bush administration, has passed an era where the American government gave particular focus in its foreign policy to allies and alliances. I think as an observation, the Obama administration has placed less emphasis on alliances and allies. This means that Australia by its very nature has a lower profile in Washington than we had during the Bush administration, particularly during the Howard years,’ he said.

‘I think with China it’s been a surprisingly untidy relationship over the last couple of years. I think it’s coming together a bit now, but it’s been very patchy and untidy, there have been difficult issues and they’ve been handled in a pretty heavy-handed way.

‘Japan has a sense that it’s been downgraded—the government would obviously deny that, but the perspective that they have is important and that certainly would be their perspective.

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‘…And India, well the [Rudd] government made the decision to cancel our policy of selling uranium to India, and that has taken away from the relationship what would otherwise be a key feature of it. In any relationship, for it to be really successful the two sides have to bring things to the table, and what we would have brought to the table that India wanted was a secure supply of uranium for its peaceful energy needs.’

Asked whether the current foreign minister, Stephen Smith, would remain in his post or make way for Rudd as speculated, Downer said there was little reason for Labor to change its top envoy.

‘I think Stephen Smith has done a workmanlike job, and I can’t see any reason why the Labor Party would move to sack him at this stage, but we’ll see,’ he said.

Downer said Labor had created its own electoral problems in removing Rudd, while Abbott had done an ‘amazingly good job’ in putting the Coalition in a position to win government in Saturday’s poll.

‘It’s quite possible the Liberals could win this time and that’s an extraordinary thing, and great credit to them. They’ve made a massive effort and they’re in it to win it,’ he said.

In the meantime, Downer said he would continue his work with the UN on resolving the Cyprus conflict, denying reports he was considering running for the Adelaide lord mayoral poll in November.

‘The next lord mayoral election [for Adelaide] is in November and I won’t have come close to finishing my UN job by then,’ he said.

‘Some people will say that as [the Cyprus conflict] has been going on at least for 36 years unresolved, to come in there and just fix it is not very realistic, but I’m working on making sure the UN makes a really good contribution to the process. In the end, the success or failure of this will depend on the leaders in Cyprus, not the UN.’

Downer said Labor would likely ‘just scrape in’ in the August 21 election, while raising the possibility of a hung Parliament. Whether Gillard’s East Timor solution evolves back to the Pacific Solution will be a key test for a re-elected Labor government, with Abbott pledging a return to the past.