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Australia's Billion Dollar Generosity

Australia's Generosity
By Simon Pound

Three words I don't often find occasion to put together: Good on Australia. News is that they have pledged One Billion Aussie Dollars to help rebuild Indonesia in the wake of the Tsunami (sorry a pun that is both tasteless and irresistible).

This is fantastic news on a bunch of fronts, and tremendously, staggeringly good politics on a bunch of others.

Australia, and Howard in particular, are often accused of trying to play the America of the Southern Hemisphere type role. More bitingly they are often referred to as America's sheriff. This has been for their tendency to ape (sorry) Dubya's tough guy swagger and stances on matters of foreign policy, most notably the Iraq war.

What we are seeing now are the first steps of their emulating the very best international intervention isolationist America ever made – the Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan was the huge assistance provided by America after WW2 to war-ravaged Europe. You can still see the affection and gratitude from Europe for this unilateral action of goodwill that was integral in getting the continent back on her feet. Actually you can't, but that says more about the French and German mindset than anything else.

For years though you could, at least in places like West Germany, and the stark difference between quality of life in American influenced Europe and Soviet influenced Europe served as the world's best argument for American inperialism.

This action set America up as the power it is today - you can't grow rich off trade if everyone else is too broke to buy your product. And also those who have a greater interest in trading with you to grow rich themselves are less likely to invade you.

So to Australia and this Billion-dollar gesture. Should it actually work as a defusing gesture, and influence grabber, for their extremely stressed relations with Indonesia it will be the best Billion Dollars ever spent by a government. Sound over the top? Not so at all.

Remember East Timor. After decades of Australian, and for that matter New Zealand, gutless co-operation with the barbarous Indonesian military occupation in East Timor we all switched sides and pushed for East Timorese independence. Good for us.

This selfless act really got up Indonesia's nose. The same Indonesia with 200 Million mainly dirt poor people. The same Indonesia with a massive and itchy military with way too much sway over national politics. The same space-poor people-rich Indonesia on the doorstep of people-poor but space and resource rich Australia.

Turns out however that this selfless stand for civil rights was nothing of the sort. As soon as East Timor was cleaved from Indonesia under the watchful eye of the UN the Aussies made a surprise claim for the massive oil fields just off East Timor. Imagine the East Timorese's surprise.

It is safe to say that the Australians would not have pushed this claim as hard as they have if it were still Indonesian territory. In much the same way it is safe to say that Helen Clark was not elected on looks alone.

The Australian's have become expert at redrawing International Maritime Boundaries Law to suit their own ends. Special credit for the slippery redefinition of great swathes of Australian territory as 'not really Australia' in the event of boat people landing on it but 'Australia proper' for all other intents and purposes.

Now, with this claim on the East Timorese oil fields their very crafty lawyers are basing their claim on the fact that even though the fields are way out of their territorial waters they do happen to share a tectonic plate. It does not take much imagination to see that around the world the adoption of such a standard for ownership would cause some difficulties. The whole of Europe, for example, shares one tectonic plate.

Not that you hear much about this. We are all still so busy patting our backs for saving those poor Timorese from the our erstwhile friend 'the oppressor' that we are not worrying that we're sitting by and in effect keeping those poor East Timorese, well, poor.

And you can bet that that oil field is worth a hell of a lot more to the Aussies than this billion dollar photo opportunity. It is, if you can look at it dispassionately, a work of back-handed genius. That money from the fields was the big reason Indonesia did not want to lose East Timor in the first place. Oz snatches it, in the process painting Indonesia as a big bad wolf in the international court of world opinion, then they give them back a paltry amount as aid a couple of years on.

This aid too, of course, buys them responsible global citizen status - priceless after their miserable treatment of their unwanted boat-people arrivals, their pacific solution, their abysmal record of treatment of the Aborigines.. the list goes on.

The best billion dollars ever spent then. Good on Australia indeed.

Although if that billion dollars does buy modernisation and westernisation of one of the most populous and backward countries on the globe then I'll be well pleased. It just pays to look at Australia's generosity in the proper light.


Simon Pound is a BFM wire host - Thursdays - where he (on alternate weeks) interviews Scoop's Alastair Thompson and Selwyn Mannings at 1.30pm. The above was first published @

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