Van Nguyen has been laid to rest, but that has not silenced the debate. Justice minister Chris Ellison in yesterday’s Age continued to push the government’s line that nothing further could have been done to save him.

Richard Ackland counters today in The SMH,
arguing that John Howard and Alexander Downer “went through their
hand-wringing routine while, at the same time, never letting down the
hardliners.” Meanwhile, on Radio National
the Prime Minister said the government would not allow Nguyen’s
execution “to influence our decision on things like Singapore
Airlines,” adding that to put abolition of the death penalty “at the
top of our foreign policy agenda in South East Asia is unrealistic.”

Even
on its own terms, the Ellison argument isn’t very successful. The fact
that (as far as we can tell) something wouldn’t work doesn’t
necessarily mean we shouldn’t try it. After all, we might be wrong. The
real question is, could it have made matters any worse?

Before
the clemency pleas for Van Nguyen had been rejected, there was a case
that putting pressure on Singapore would only hurt him: that the
Singaporean government would never give in to threats, but might yield
to quiet diplomacy. Maybe this was right at the time – there were
conflicting views even then – but by the last week it had clearly
outlived its relevance.

Yet now, when Nguyen is beyond help or
hurt, the advocates of quiet diplomacy have gone, well, quiet. If ever
there was a time for public, unsubtle diplomacy, it is now. The fact
that the government holds to its softly-softly approach suggests that
it was always its preferred way of doing things, not just a matter of
prudent calculation.

Instead, why not kick up an almighty fuss?
Why not show the Singaporeans, and anyone else contemplating the murder
of our citizens, that we mean business? Suspend military cooperation,
kick out some of the Singaporean government’s corporations, declare
some of its diplomats persona non grata, make protests to the UN, the
International Court of Justice, and whoever else will listen.

Then, next time we speak softly to our neighbours, they might remember that we have a big stick in reserve.

Peter Fray

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