Opinion: Anwar speaks a tough truth

May 21, 2018

Prof Reilly: Our leaders are scared to say what needs to be said.

By Professor Benjamin Reilly, Dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs

Anwar Ibrahim’s pointed comments on his release from jail about Australia and other democracies "appeasing ruthless, corrupt, authoritarian leaders" made many squirm.

But the reality is that Australian governments of both persuasions have long avoided talking about the growing problem of authoritarianism in our region.

We have chosen, as Anwar observed, to promote trade and economic ties over our core values.

The reasons for this are also clear: when Australian leaders do talk about the importance of basic freedoms, human rights and electoral democracy in Asia, they are routinely castigated for "interfering" or being arrogant Westerners.

Anwar’s new boss (and former jailer) Mahathir Mohamad made an art form of this during his previous term as Malaysian prime minister, isolating Australia from its region.

This puts Australian politicians in an impossible position. When ministers such as Julie Bishop talk about China’s regional leadership ambitions and democracy, they are hounded down — not just by predictable voices in China’s state media but also by friendly fire.

Critics such as our former ambassador Geoff Raby reflect not just the Chinese government but the views of much of our business community in preferring Australia play the role of supplicant tributary state to the Celestial Empire, keeping the money flowing and our mouths shut.

So what is Australia to do?

The foreign policy white paper was a start, acknowledging that our values and freedoms are actually a source of strength and "soft power" in our region, not something to be hidden.

However, we have yet to grasp that a liberal, rules-based international order requires a liberal, rules-based domestic order — in a word, democracy — if it is to be more than an oftreiterated wish in our defence and security planning.

Making these goals tangible requires Australia to play a more direct role in fostering the political development of our region to promote our own prosperity and security.

In particular, there is a clear need to invest more than rhetoric in actually helping democrats and opposition movements in the region.

Anwar’s last visit to Australia, in 2006, saw him give an address to the Australian parliament sponsored by the Centre for Democratic Institutions, which also trained opposition MPs in Malaysia and elsewhere around the region.

Its demise on the back of funding cuts has left precious few resources devoted to helping democracy in our region and those that are left of questionable value.

Under the little-known Australian Political Parties for Democracy scheme, for instance, both the main Australian parties receive public funding for international cooperation, but most of this is spent outside our region.

We also fritter aid money away on global organisations whose main activities are fatuous conferences, such as a recent love-in with the nowdeposed government in Kuala Lumpur on, you guessed it, the importance of democracy in Southeast Asia.

What is needed is an independent body, supported by, but at arm’s length from, government that can assist liberalisation, religious tolerance and democratic reforms in our region.

Sustained bipartisan advocacy for liberal rules and institutions will enable us to steer a course between supine acceptance of autocrats on the one hand without being accused of megaphone diplomacy on the other.

The Opinion was first published in The Australian.

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Media contact: Pepita Smyth
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Categories: General, Research, Asian studies, political science and social sciences
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