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MH370 search hides a less generous Australia

Australia loves cultivating a generous, professional image, but its actions towards refugees have tainted the veneer.
Last modified: 23 Mar 2014 12:22
Australia's treatment of asylum seekers is the polar opposite to its actions during the search for the missing Malaysian plane. [AP]

At two geographic extremes of Australia’s sphere of influence, two sets of actions reflect conflicting ways in which Australia is seen.

Around 2500km off Australia’s south-west, in waters the country's maritime safety agency oversees,  the Australian military is looking for floating objects spotted by satellites.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott stood up in parliament on Thursday and delivered news of a “potentially important development” in the search for flight MH370.  Abbott appeared to put a stamp of authority on an investigation which, as run from Kuala Lumpur, had appeared disjointed and chaotic.

Just three days after Malaysia had requested Australia co-ordinate a search along a ‘southern vector’ route the missing flight might have taken, Australia’s prime minister appeared to have something solid.

As I write, spotter planes have not seen any large objects on the surface of the sea. And even if they are seen, they might have nothing to do with the lost plane.

But Australia lending a hand to its neighbours in trouble is an international image the Australian government likes to cultivate: a stable, sober country using high-tech equipment and highly-trained professionals. The cost of the search, Australia’s government says, is immaterial.  Australia is generous.  And Australia is in control.

Off Australia’s north-east lies the country of Papua New Guinea. To its north-east is Manus Island. And on that island is a detention centre paid for - and effectively run by Australia - for asylum seekers who have tried to travel to Australia by boat. Tony Abbott was in Papua New Guinea this week. Though he didn’t visit the detention centre, his talks with his Papua New Guinean counterpart, Peter O'Neill, were dominated by the issue.

Polar opposites

The way Australia treats asylum seekers presents an image to outsiders that is the polar opposite of the one described above.  Flying asylum seekers to another country and then detaining them indefinitely – even though Australia knows most are refugees – seem the actions of an an unkind country. When unexplained violence at a refugee camp results in the death of a man, it also suggests a country out of control.

Australia is taking the world’s media along with it on its search flights over the Southern Ocean.  Yet, it doesn’t want media anywhere near Manus Island. This week, on the orders of a Papua New Guinean judge, journalists have been allowed to see inside the island's detention centre for the first time in almost two years.

Coverage of the squalid, desperate conditions the journalists found has been totally overshadowed in most media outlets by coverage of Australia’s generous efforts thousands of kilometres away. Just as his government might have hoped, most of the comments that TV stations and newspapers around the world ran of Abbott's Papua New Guinea visit were about the hunt for the plane, not the plight of refugees.

Australia’s two images conflict. It's the former the government likes the world to see.