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Summary of recent Australian foreign policy events

Compiled by Alicia Cullen - June 15, 1997

Earlier this week, the Australian Democrats called on the Australian government to take a public stand against continuing human rights abuses in East Timor following the US Congressional Amendment on East Timor initiated by Senator Patrick Kennedy and resulting also in the cancellation with Indonesia of the IMET defense program.

Downer and Howard are continuing to be quoted in the media as saying that with regard to human rights abuses, they would prefer to raise talks privately, that Australia's influence in these matters is minimal and that a public stand could be counter-productive.

They have suggested that this is the reason they have not backed the US on human rights issues in China and Burma.

Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, will not be joining US Secretary of State, Dr. Madeleine Albright and British PM, Mr. Tony Blair, in boycotting the swearing in on June 30 of the Hong Kong Provisional Legislature appointed by Beijing until elections are held. Instead, Downer will be joining 4,000 other invited guests in attending the ceremony.

US Ambassador to Australia, Genta Hawkins-Holmes, said in Sydney: "I think there will come times, perhaps more than in the past, in the future when we (The US & Australia) do differ on tactics. What I don't see is a divergence on our common objectives . . . and we accept that."

John Howard leaves for a two week visit to Britain and the US on Tuesday. In Britain, he is expected to meet with Mr. Blair, the Queen, and former PM's Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He will be meeting with President Clinton in the US

Academic Advisory Committee

Earlier this week however, Downer called for the formation of an advisory committee of academics to make recommendations to government on issues relevant to formation of foreign policy, stating that he was greatly impressed by what he had seen of this practice in the US

Perhaps co-incidentally, Rob Wesley-Smith of Australians for a Free East Timor, Darwin,stated last Saturday on a broadcast of ABC Radio, that John Howard had demonstrated his lack of knowledge on foreign issues on his last visit to the US when President Clinton had to correct him several times.

Trade conference in Jakarta & criticism of ABC

An incident which has gained a reasonable amount of media attention has centred around Rob Borbidge, Premier of Queensland, currently on a trade mission in Jakarta. It seems highly likely that Borbidge may be making the most of his trip to Jakarta to promote a separate agenda as well as developing trade. He is staunchly and publicly opposed to Aboriginal Land Rights, and because of actions he took to undermine John Howard' s 10 point Wik Plan, Borbidge stated about 2 weeks ago on television that he and the Prime Minister are virtually not speaking to each other at the present time.

Whilst some members of government have been attempting to ease some of the damage in foreign relations they perceive to have been caused by Pauline Hanson (One Nation Party), Borbidge, speaking from Jakarta, attacked the ABC stating that it's broadcasts on Aboriginal reconciliation and the stolen children had damaged Australia's standing in the region. He also singled out ABC programs such as "The 7.30 Report" and "Foreign Correspondent" for their coverage of human rights abuses in Indonesia, and a specifically, a recent item on the financial dealings of the Suharto family.

An article broadcast on Radio Australia which may have upset Borbidge was with regard to unconfirmed reports that the University of Central Queensland was using what some would consider unjustifiably competitive marketing techniques to lure high-fee-paying Malaysian and other Asian students to the university. Phil Honeywood, Victorian Minister for Education had responded with regard to this issue, that national standards of practice in marketing Australian education overseas should be adopted. (Readers may recall n article written for "The Australian", by George Aditdjondro, and posted on this network a few weeks ago with regard to statements made by Honeywood in Jakarta, calling for an investigation into the appointment of Arief Budiman to the Faculty of Asian Studies at Melbourne University. Honeywood had stated that he did not want to see the University of Melbourne become a "safe haven for Indonesian dissidents". Adidtjondro had pointed out that interference by the minister in either staff appointments or course curriculum was neither appropriate nor constitutional, and was an internal matter).

Despite support from Downer to save Radio Australia (at least up until this time - he had lobbied to save Radio Australia, pledging $1.5 million dollars from the Department of Foreign Affairs in funding ,virtually without any support from colleagues in his party), the organisation has lost an influential voice in it's battle to keep broadcasting to Asia when it's General Manager, Mr. Derek White left on Friday.

Immigration Department

A report in "The Australian" - "Refugee Tribunal Squeezed" stated that the head of the Refugee Review Tribunal, Mr. Shun Chetty, may have acted out of accordance with The Migration Act with relation to the Tribunal's consideration of East Timorese applications, that the government through strong pressure from Indonesia, may legislate to remove the supposed independence of the tribunal if a decision favourable to the Timorese is made by the Tribunal.

Later in the week, an announcement was made that special visa classes will be created for specified citizens from Sri Lanka, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, China and countries in the former Yugoslavia - but, perhaps not surprisingly, no mention of East Timor. About 8,000 will be eligible to apply to resolve the status of people living in Australia as long-term temporary residents for humanitarian reasons. There will be an option of permanent residency.

Boat people

On Friday, a steel-hulled boat carrying 138 people whose country of origin has not yet been made public (although some reports say they may be from China), was intercepted by Australian authorities off Thursday Island . Some reports have stated that 12 people jumped overboard, 2 of whom were captured by the authorities. The boat was escorted to Cairns, and the people on board taken to the Port Hedland Detention Centre in Western Australia. Australia was criticised by the U.N. earlier this year for it's treatment of Cambodian refugees in detention (some of whom had been kept in detention for up to 4 years - countries such as New Zealand had a maximum detention period of up to 28 days).

Order of Australia award to Andrew Peacock

Andrew Peacock, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs (under Malcolm Fraser), and presently Australian Ambassador to the US received the highest award at this year's honours list when he was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia. It had previously been noted by long-time members of the Timor Solidarity Movement in Melbourne that Peacock had once claimed to be a strong supporter of the plight of people of East Timor, but appeared to no longer support this issue once he knew he had the numbers to win his seat and enter government.