Even if Bob Carr isn’t drafted into the job, most pundits think that Craig Emerson won’t be staying on as foreign minister. Which may be just as well, because he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory in his short tenure so far.

Yesterday morning, Emerson told caucus that MPs should not attend a meeting of the new Australia-Pacific group of International Parliamentarians for West Papua. Apparently a number of his colleagues told him to mind his own business, and at least three of them went anyway. One of those, Laurie Ferguson, described Emerson’s position as “unprecedented, ridiculous and ill-informed”.

For Emerson it’s quite possible that this was less a matter of kowtowing to the Indonesians and more a matter of venting his dislike of the Greens, who organised the meeting. Either way it was not a success: the meeting made headlines in Jakarta and also provided some good publicity for Greens senator Richard Di Natale.

As he said, “It’s disappointing that there is any division over protecting the fundamental human rights of our neighbours in West Papua.”

But in Emerson’s defence, his position is thoroughly consistent with the attitude taken by both sides of politics to West Papua. Just as with the parallel case of East Timor, Australia connived at Indonesia’s imperialism and then pretended for decades that the problem did not exist.

At least East Timor, having been invaded by a right-wing Indonesian government, had a devoted band of supporters on the Australian left (who were repeatedly sold out by the ALP). West Papua lacked even that, having been occupied (courtesy of a rigged UN process) by a left-wing Indonesian government a decade earlier.

But appeasement has long since become bipartisan. Even after the Howard government, with extreme reluctance, had been driven to support East Timorese independence, it failed to learn the lesson and continued to deny any concerns about West Papua. In 2006 our ambassador in Washington went out of his way to endorse Indonesian rule.

Which raises the interesting question of where the Coalition MPs were at yesterday’s meeting. None of the reports mention them, so if any attended they are keeping very quiet about it. Sad to say, being tagged as a supporter of human rights is not a good career move in today’s Liberal Party.

Rather it’s the Greens, regularly smeared as advocates of dictatorship, who end up making the running on issues of self-determination — not just West Papua, but Tibet, Palestine, Western Sahara and others. Labor has the occasional backbencher who will put their hand up (Michael Danby on Tibet deserves particular credit), but no word at all from the opposition.

It’s a common pattern; Labor gets the bad publicity for trying to rein in its dissenters, but the Liberals get a free pass because conformity has been so well enforced that they have no dissenters in the first place.

Just as our East Timor policy eventually collapsed under its own weight, one day the reality of West Papua will have to be recognised as well.

When its people finally get their freedom, the Australian government of the day will probably try to take credit and hope our long and discreditable record can be quietly forgotten.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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