Chris Trotter: Catastrophic loss of trust over Canberra’s Manus provocation

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OPINION: By Chris Trotter

You have to go a long way to find anything remotely resembling Australia’s current treatment of New Zealand.

For a supposedly friendly government to deliberately inject inflammatory disinformation into the political bloodstream of its supposedly closest neighbour is an extraordinarily provocative act. Not quite an act of war, but the sort of intervention that can all-too-easily provoke a catastrophic loss of trust.

It’s the sort of thing that the Soviets and the Americans used to do to one another all the time during the Cold War. Except, of course, those two superpowers were ideological and geopolitical rivals of the first order. It takes a real effort to re-cast the relationship between New Zealand and Australia in similar terms. Nevertheless, it’s an effort we are now obliged to make.

So, what is it that Australia has done? Essentially, its national security apparatus (presumably at the instigation of their political leaders) has released, mostly through media surrogates, a number of related stories calculated to inflame the prejudices of a certain type of New Zealander.

Like Australia, New Zealand harbours a frighteningly large number of racists. Politically-speaking, such people are easily aroused and have few qualms about setting-off ugly, racially-charged, debates on talkback radio, in the letters columns of the daily newspapers and across social media. These individuals are trouble enough when all they have to fight with are their own stereotypes and prejudices. Arm them with the carefully assembled disinformation of “fake news” and they instantly become quite dangerous.

Planting stories
And yet, this is exactly what the Australian authorities have done. Planting stories in their own press (knowing they will be picked up almost immediately by our own) about at least four boatloads of illegal immigrants that have set out for New Zealand only to be intercepted and turned back by the ever-vigilant officers of the Royal Australian Navy and their Coast Guard comrades.

-Partners-

The purpose of this story (unsourced and lacking in detail, making it, almost certainly, fake news) was to paint New Zealand’s prime minister as an ill-informed and ungrateful diplomatic naïf: an inexperienced young idealist who doesn’t know which way is up when it comes to dealing with real-world problems.

This, alone, was an extraordinary intervention. To gauge how extraordinary, just turn it around. Imagine the reaction in Australia if some unnamed person in New Zealand’s national security apparatus leaked a memo to one of this country’s daily newspapers in which the negative diplomatic and economic consequences of being tainted by association with Australia’s flouting of international law is set forth in clinical detail. If the memo also contained a collection of highly critical assessments of Turnbull’s cabinet colleagues, allegedly passed-on by a number of unnamed western diplomats, then so much the better!

Canberra would not be impressed!

If the Australians had left it at just one intervention, then perhaps New Zealanders could simply have shrugged it off as yet another case of bad behaviour from the land of the under-arm bowlers. But when have the Aussies ever left it at “just one”?

Former guard’s ‘intervention’
The next intervention came in the form of “Ian” – formerly a guard (or so he said) at both the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. For reasons it has yet to adequately explain, RNZ’s Checkpoint programme provided “Ian” with nearly ten, largely uninterrupted, minutes of air-time during which he poured-forth a stream of accusations and characterisations which, to put it mildly, painted the protesters occupying the decommissioned Manus Island facility in the most lurid and disquieting colours. The detainees were criminals, drug-dealers – paedophiles even! Not at all the sort of people New Zealanders would want in their country.

“Ian”, it turns out, is a “witness” well-known to the many Australian NGOs that have taken up the cause of the detainees on Manus and Nauru. They have noted the curious similarities between “Ian’s” supposedly personal observations and experiences, and the inflammatory talking-points constantly reiterated by Australia’s hard-line Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. A cynic might describe the grim “testimony” of “Ian” and Dutton as mutually reinforcing.

No matter. New Zealand’s racist, Islamophobic and militantly anti-immigrant community had been supplied with yet another truckload of Australian-manufactured ammunition.

Enough? Not hardly! Only on Friday morning New Zealanders were fed the shocking “news” that the protesting Manus Island detainees are harbouring within their ranks an unspecified number of men guilty of having debauched and prostituted local girls as young as 10 and 13!

Too much? Over the top? Redolent of the very worst instances of the murderous racial-incitement for which the Deep South of the United States was so rightly infamous? It sure is! Which is why we must hope that the internet does not operate on Manus Island. Because, if the local inhabitants were to read on-line that the detainees were responsible for prostituting their daughters, what might they NOT do?

Disinformation campaign
One almost feels that the Australian spooks behind this extraordinary disinformation campaign would actually be delighted if the locals burned down the Manus Island detention centre with the protesting detainees inside it.

“This is what comes of 37-year-old Kiwi prime ministers meddling in matters they know nothing about!” That would be the consistent theme of the right-wing Australian media. It would not take long for the same line to be picked up here: first on social media, and then by more mainstream media outlets.

Right-wing outrage, mixed with a gleeful “we told you so!”, could not, however, be contained within the news media for very long. Inevitably, the more outré inhabitants of the Opposition’s back bench would take possession of the controversy, from there it would cascade down rapidly to Opposition politicians nearer the front.

Before her enemies could say: “It’s all your fault!”, Jacinda would find herself under withering political fire from both sides of the Tasman. Canberra would register her increasingly fragile government’s distress with grim satisfaction.

As the men and women responsible for organising “Operation Stardust” deleted its final folder, and fed the last incriminating document into the paper-shredder, one or two of them might even have voiced a judiciously muted “Mission Accomplished!”

This essay, by Chris Trotter, was originally posted on the Bowalley Road blog of Saturday, 18 November 2017, under the title: “Not quite an act of war: Analysing Australia’s push-back against Jacinda’s Manus Island outreach.  It is republished by Asia Pacific Report with the permission of the author.

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