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The line on the Bali 9
Tony Phillips has worked as a broadcaster, a freelance journalist and as an academic in politics, history and public policy. This is Tony's debut piece for Webdiary, though he's been a regular commentator. Thanks Tony, and I hope we hear more from you.
by Tony Phillips
With the sentencing of members of the heroin trafficking conspiracy in Indonesia this week we are seeing a re-run, with variations, on what has become a familiar tune. One that began with Schapelle Corby in early 2005 and became full tragedy with the murder of Van Nguyan in Singapore in December last year. Namely the chorus of commentary around young Australians overseas and drugs.
The government is in a difficult political position as its steps around these issues. Even leaving aside the unjust imprisonment of David Hicks by the US and the support the Australian government has given this, the spectre of not being seen to be looking after its citizens arises each time this happens. With the case of the picturesque and emotive Schapelle hysteria from the lower orders wafted up through the tabloids and seemed to infect everybody. With Van Nguyan the enormity of cold blooded execution aroused much “concern” and even “outrage” from the broadsheet brigade. All the time the government’s other agenda (many insiders would say the one Australia’s foreign policy establishment has always given priority to), of not offending foreign powers, asserted pressure on the government from the other direction.
The government played the two problems in a not dissimilar manner but with slightly different angles of attack. In the case of Schapelle, whose innocence became a mark of faith for many, there was simply a lot of hand wringing and empathising, while not offering much in the way of concrete help. This is of course the real message for Australians travelling overseas, we are not America and if you get into trouble you are largely on your own. Certainly you are much less important than considerations of the Australian state’s relationship with the foreign state whose attentions you have incurred.
In the case of Van Nguyan, whose guilt was admitted, the personal responsibility card and drugs card could and were played simultaneously. At it most benign this was a joining of Australia’s pleas for clemency (something some said they didn’t do forcefully enough, others replied “enough would never be enough for some”) with the wagging finger of “See this is what happens if you try and move drugs through Asia”. Nothing wrong with that, its perfectly true. Sadly there was also a chorus coming from the tabloids, and dog whistled in some of the polliel comments, that after all he was a drug runner and had it coming. It was a pretty weak call though, more than outweighed by the wonderful grass roots campaign that was started by his friends and taken up by his fellow citizens.
In the case of the Bali 9 we have a more unsavoury group, neither nice and pretty Aussie girls nor blighted migrant success stories. At the same time things are more complicated because a government with a reputation for not caring much about civil and human rights, or about the welfare of its citizens, is implicated via the centrality of the Australian Federal Police to the arrests. There will be those willingly to openly accuse, and certainly dog whistle, the accusation that this was a deliberate ploy by a government that isn’t really that opposed to the death penalty, and remains more interested in fostering relations with foreign powers and their security organisations, especially in these times of terrorism, than a group of lower class kids from the ‘burbs. Indeed it’s a reasonable speculation.
Excerpts from two interviews by Alexander Downer give a sense of where the questions might be heading and how the government plans to deflect them.
Interview - Sky News – Early Edition
GILBERT: What’s your response to criticisms that have been made of the Government and the Federal Police that they should have waited until these people returned to Australian soil before acting, rather than tipping off the Indonesians?
MR DOWNER: Oh no, we’re completely opposed to drug trafficking. I can completely assure you, we are totally opposed to people trafficking heroin into our country. If that heroin goes onto the streets in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or wherever, it will kill young people and the Government is absolutely determined to stop drug trafficking. Look, the best defence people have against being caught trafficking drugs in not to traffic drugs, it is as simple as that. If you traffic drugs the risks are simply enormous. If you get caught, you can be executed in Asia. We won’t be able to stop the drug trade if we don’t have cooperative relations police relations, with various countries around Asia. We have to do that.
GILBERT: So you’re saying if the Australian Federal Police waited, we could have jeopardised the bi-lateral, at least the police relations?
MR DOWNER: We may not have intercepted, I’m not just saying that, they may not have been able to stop to intercept the trafficking the drugs into Australia at all. It was a joint operation, as I understand it, between the Federal Police and the Indonesian Police, a joint operation to stop people trafficking drugs into Australia. See, I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for people who want to bring heroin into our country, whatever their nationality. They are going to ruin the lives of people in this country, their best guarantee is not to traffic drugs – if they’re caught trafficking drugs, now six I think of the Bali Nine have been convicted, the Court says they’re guilty, the Court says they were trafficking drugs, well if they were they were extremely foolish, and there’s no point in trying to transfer the responsibility for that to the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Government or whoever it may be in Australia. The responsibility for this rests with the people who were trying to traffic heroin into this country, that is a very serious criminal offence and you think people would have learnt, particularly on the back of the Schapelle Corby case.
Interview - Radio National - AM Program
Fran Kelly 15 Feb 2006
KELLY: Minister, we heard this morning, QC Lex Lasry arguing that the government's in a contradictory position here, that it's sending mixed messages by making representations to Indonesia for clemency, while approving at the same time of the actions of the AFP by allowing the Bali Nine to be arrested in Bali, rather than here in Australia where the death penalty doesn't apply.
DOWNER: No, we're not … we are trying to stop people trafficking drugs into Australia, and we are absolutely determined to do that, so we can save the lives of young Australians. That's our priority. We can't stop trafficking into Australia if we don't have police relations with countries in the region. We have to have police cooperation in order to stop the trafficking.
KELLY: But couldn't we talk about...
DOWNER: There's no point...
KELLY: But isn't the...
KELLY: ... whole point of police cooperation that the AFP, who clearly did cooperate with Indonesian authorities, to a large degree in this case, could have actually stopped this happening before they even got on a plane to Bali?
DOWNER: Well, don't think … no, I don't think that's right, and the AFP deny that. They said they had with the case of Scott Rush no basis ... no legal basis for stopping him getting on the plane.
There's no point in transferring the blame to the AFP. The AFP weren't trafficking drugs. The responsibility for trafficking drugs rests with the people doing the trafficking. And it's ...
KELLY: I don't think anyone's suggesting ...
DOWNER: I mean, we have to … look, we have to focus on that. When those drugs … if those drugs get distributed in Australia, they can take the lives of young Australians. I mean, it is an appalling thing and this drug trafficking has to be stopped.
There's no lack of warnings around. We had all of the high profile of the Schapelle Corby case, for example, but still people have been trafficking drugs, still they have been caught and convicted. And, you know, people have to learn that, in the end, the Australian government is never going to be able to guarantee their security or safety if they're going to commit egregious criminal offences. It can't be done.
KELLY : Minister, there's no sympathy for drug traffickers - I absolutely agree with you on that - but isn't there a question mark about whether we should allow Australians to be arrested in a country where we know the death penalty applies, when we could organise it another way. We could have allowed those people to arrive back in the country and arrest them here ...
(full text of both interviews can be found on the Foreign Ministers Website http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/)
For the most part Downer played it straight in his interviews, affirming, as he did elsewhere in other media, that the government did not support executions and would make a plea for clemency. At the same time he echoed, though at a cooler temperature then the Prime Minister’s hand wringing over the tragedy , with the point about the foolishness of taking drugs through Asia. (“it’s the parents I feel sorry for” Mr Howard made a point of saying, just in case anyone thought he might feel sorry for the drug traffickers)
However, two other aspects were present in Downer’s replies, first the pains to deny the government or the Federal Police have anything to answer for, and second throwing in the bogeyman of drugs to distract sympathy and attention from the first issue. The Minister reiterated happily the myth that these drugs were going to kill Australian kiddies and even Fran Kelly couldn’t help herself in reinforcing this. Yet the facts about heroin make it a minor drug of addiction, let alone one of fatality. Most of the evil in the drug actually comes from the prohibition politicians are so united in applying. In a sense Downer is getting a double bonus here, he’s both deflecting criticism and garnering support on the back of drug demonisation, while the real evil comes from the very policy his government pursues.
Prohibition as practiced by Australia and others under the sway of the US, including Indonesia, basically creates three effects
a) it enriches and deepens vicious networks of organised crime, and the odd terror network
b) it corrupts police and often other figures in authority
c) it degrades and sometimes kills users through the provision of unregulated substances and the forcing of poor circumstances of use, supply and cost onto consumers.
Of the just under 400 Australians who died of heroin overdoses in 2004 I suspect nearly all their deaths would be attributable in large measure to the problems caused by prohibition, not the use of the drug.
However on the issue of the Federal police it was perhaps revealing that Downer said “We won’t be able to stop the drug trade if we don’t have cooperative relations police relations, with various countries around Asia” something Gilbert was quick enough and smart enough to pick up on. It was backing away from the implications of this that had Downer reaching for the drug demonization mantra. Maybe this is the line that will be played whenever questions start getting difficult. After all it’s a handy emotive trigger for stifling thought.
It will be interesting to see where the government, the media, and of course the public go, and are lead, on the what and why of the Bali 9 over the coming weeks. For example pressure about the culpability of the government may actually result in a backlash that adds further fuel to reactionary policies on law and order and on drugs.