05/24/2022, 12.21
OCEANIA
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Albanese's Australia and the Pacific Rim

by Giorgio Licini *

Canberra's U-turn with the defeat of conservative Scott Morrison and Labor's return to government is being watched closely outside the country as well. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Penny Wong - an ethnic Han Chinese originally from Malaysia - to oversee the crux of relations with Beijing.

Port Moresby (AsiaNews) - Australia and several in the international community literally held their breath on Saturday waiting for the results of the federal elections and the composition of the new Parliament in Canberra. Public manifestations of dissent were rare in recent years over the conservative Liberal and National Coalition government in power since 2013 with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the helm of it for the last four years. This created a suspicion that most Australians had politically veered to the far right and were willing to forgive anything to a leadership so manifestly in breach of international laws, human rights, empathy, and support to the disadvantaged and the marginalized in society.

Hour after hour, on the contrary, the ballot counting revealed a surprising turn. The opposition Labor party immediately pulled ahead and with a handful of seats still too close to call after four days (due to the high number of postal votes subject to a manual count) its leader Anthony Albanese is practically certain of the required 76 majority vote in the 151-seat House of Representatives.

That’s not all. The Greens, the Independents, and other minor parties, for the first time will end up securing about fifteen seats all together in the lower house, mostly grabbed from the conservatives. The Liberal party has lost the big cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to the Labor, the Greens, and the so-called Teal Movement, where six conservative independent female candidates have surprisingly defeated six mainline conservative male candidates. Their basic electoral platform: climate change and gender equality. The Greens and the Independents are willing to support the new Labor government should it fall short of a majority in the 76-seat Upper House of the Senate as it may probably be the case at the end of the count. It’s not that the two-party system is over in Australia, as some have said, but a huge blow has been dealt to complacent politicians and traditional political lobbies.

The Liberal party of Scott Morrison was the most penalized. Only candidates from die-hard conservative electorates have succeeded in the election. Therefore, the party is now even more ideologically positioned to the right, ready to elect as new opposition leader Mr. Peter Dutton, who himself barely survived the polls from the advantageous position of Defense Minister. He was previously responsible for the brutal treatment of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants in his other ministerial portfolio of Home Affairs Minister.

The Australians kept quiet for three years and patiently waited for the elections to punish Scott Morrison and his government for the poor handling of calamities that ravaged the Eastern and Southern parts of Australia: unprecedented scale of bush fires, floods, Covid-19 and unexplained delays in the vaccination campaign, heavy human losses in the aged care system, thousands of citizens stranded abroad for months and not allowed to return apparently due a shortage of quarantine facilities. Scott Morrison managed to supply additional proof of his lack of personal empathy by conceding to winner Labor leader Anthony Albanese and exiting the scene without a word of thanks to the teachers and the nurses who had sacrificed so much during the pandemic. The oversight didn’t go undetected by the public.

We can provide direct witness and proof of the puzzling attitude of the conservative Australian government especially over the last three years. On the issue of the asylum seekers forcibly transferred by Australia to remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea in 2013, the replies to our correspondence by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Home Affairs Ministers Peter Dutton first and Karen Andrews more recently were astonishingly formal, cold, depressing, almost contemptuous. Behind the lines you could see the work and the writing patterns of ministerial aides well catechized in wickedness and brutality.

It is now up to the thirty-first prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to turn the tide of discontent and disillusion on so many fronts. He is the first leader of Australia of non-Anglo-Celtic heritage. He bears the family name of an Italian father he didn’t grow up with and fond memories of an Irish-Australian mother who brought him up with sacrifices. He received his education in Catholic schools in Sydney and joined the Unions in his youth. He was a member of Parliament for Labor at 33 years of age in 1996 and has been there ever since. He has held ministerial portfolios under previous Labor governments. He is now putting together an ethnically and gender balanced cabinet. For the first time the Minister for Indigenous Affairs will come from the ranks of the First Nation people. The new Foreign Minister, Sen. Penny Wong, on her first day in office addressed the Pacific “family” (not “our backyard” as the conservatives used to say) of independent nations assuring them of a journey together and mutual support. Of course, still just words for the moment but unheard for a long time.

China is expanding in the Pacific as in the rest of the world. Their recent economic and defense treaty with controversial Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare stunned Australia. It probably drove the last nail in the coffin of the Morrison government by eventually exhausting the last reserve of confidence by moderate and concerned liberals. When things do not go well, Australians do not take to the streets, but just choose change by turning to the opposition. The Labor party lost in 2013, and it took them nine years to come back to power because the state coffers were empty, and the voters could not allow them to spend any further.

It will be Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong, herself an ethnic Han Chinese originally from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, to meet and engage the Beijing leadership on a regular basis. Anthony Albanese already said that it is China that has changed attitude in recent years, not Australia. The new government is likely to resume the conversation with the French and allow them some space in the Pacific after being abruptly shunned by the Morrison government over the botched nuclear submarine deal in favor of a new agreement with the United States and England.

New Zealand also looks at friendlier ties with Australia for security and cooperation in the Pacific, and more so for the end of the Australian cruel practice of deporting offending and undesired longtime residents of Kiwi origin, including minors, now without connections and support across the ditch. The Australian immigration regime of indefinite detention is aberrant. A young New Zealand lady committed suicide the day after Albanese was elected. The last in a long series.

On the immigration front Australia will continue to be one of the most coveted destinations on the planet. The Albanese government, however, will strongly ensure that perilous arrivals of asylum seekers by boat, though legitimate under international law, will not resume. What remains to be solved is the situation of about one thousand individuals who arrived by boat between July and December 2013 (about 220 of them still in offshore detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru) and have no chance at resettlement in any country different than Australia despite current domestic laws preventing it.

The strongest call from the ballots, and the first thing Anthony Albanese mentioned, however, is a different approach to the issue of climate change. After enormous losses in natural habitat, properties, and human lives by drought, bush fires and floods, the Australians stopped believing Scott Morrison’s narrative that the problem didn’t exist and there was no need to gradually veer away from coal and fossil fuel. Clean energy technology will be the future for Australia as well and, in the words of the new prime minster, national respect in this regard by the rest of the developed world will have to be restored.

Australia can’t avoid her destiny as the leader of the Pacific. But what is required is that the government in Canberra remains decent, compassionate, honest and respectable.

*General Secretary, Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

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