The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Shame Australia, shame

Many weird stories come out of Indonesia: A smoking orang-utan hooked on nicotine, the public servant jailed for confessing his atheism on Facebook. 

Some yarns are funny like moralising politicians caught surfing porn during parliamentary debate.  Others are sad: A 15-year-old faced five years in jail for hoofing it with a cop’s sandals. 

But few can be as strange as the linking of the Australian Graduate School of Leadership with the Jenderal Soedirman Center.  The joint venturers intend to set up a leadership and ethics education institution to rid Indonesia of corruption.

JSC head Bugiaks was reported saying: “Leadership and ethics education should be an effective way to create new leaders who bring prosperity to the populace.

“Corruption is like a chronic cancer, and has to be cured by preparing upcoming leaders with a good ethics.”

Some might consider the proposal a joke, the money better spent on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone.  Wrong; it’s a golden goal.  Even though corruption is to the public service and business what rice is to the cuisine, at least someone is trying and that’s to be applauded.

The problem is that Australia has been chosen to teach Indonesia leadership as though we have a reputation in this area.

That used to be the situation. When others straddled the fence after Indonesia declared independence we were in the forefront, recognizing a new nation.  The government shilly-shallied for a while but the unions were resolute, custodians of our conscience 

When emergency assistance was needed after the 2002 Bali bombs, we responded with alacrity and unqualified generosity. Fundamentalists had killed 202 innocents, including 88 Australians, and injured 240 - but we didn’t let the bombers’ hate poison relationships with our neighbours who had also suffered terribly.

We were leaders in compassion.  We gave $7 million for an eye centre and $2.5 million for local victims, with many flown south for treatment.

Apart from the $1 billion government aid following the 2004 Aceh tsunami, ordinary folk across the continent gave money and goods without question.  It was the same with the 2006 Yogya earthquake, the Mount Merapi explosion and every other major natural disaster to hit the catastrophe-prone Archipelago.

Even when the need has been less urgent Australia has been there with health and education programs, offering scholarships, building schools, training and advising.  We give almost half a billion dollars a year.  We are Indonesia’s top aid donor.

We led the way in good governance.  We’d inherited the great Westminster system.  We upheld the rule of law and ministerial accountability.  We believed in human rights and made it law. Our public service was staunchly independent, like our judiciary.  We were the model nation, an example to the world.

In a region where despots rule, violence influences votes and states fail we could help a struggling democracy. It was our duty.

When Australia supported the East Timor referendum we were still in front. The issue was clear:  Indonesia was in the wrong, disgracefully so, and Australia in the right.

We took the moral high ground and risked war.  We upheld the great Australian principle – we did the Right Thing.  We led the world and stood tall.

No longer.

It’s time to apologize to the Indonesian people and confess that all the knowledge and wisdom we’ve been smugly offering is now dross.  In truth we are as base as those venal politicians who run the Republic for themselves.

We cannot show leadership because we’ve abandoned that ideal.  We cannot teach ethics because we’ve been gutted of that quality through our inability to fix the asylum seeker problem that has killed hundreds and brought anguish to thousands.

A difficult situation?  Yes, extraordinarily so, complex and tangled.  Beyond solution?   No, given intelligence, goodwill, honesty, a determination to put the preservation of life above political career – and leadership.

We’ve long been the Lucky Country, rich in resources, young and free as the anthem says.  Happy to rest on our record of excellence.

Zip back the body bags of the drowned and see the results, the decomposition of political leadership.

(First published in On Line Opinion 11 July 2012.  Read reaction here


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