There are certain world events that mark a before and after for how we regard some phenomena. Far-right extremism and mass shootings weren’t on the top of our agenda in this part of the world until last fortnight’s terrorist attack in New Zealand. The ghastly incident has left an indelible mark on the psyche of New Zealanders and Australians alike and has spurred much-needed discussions on the need to counter the spread of far-right ideology, hatred and bigotry in our communities.
An Australian man carried out a terrorist attack in two mosques at Christchurch in New Zealand on the 15th of March, murdering 50 people, including children. He had planned to kill many more people but was stopped by law enforcement personnel. Apparently, he had planned this carnage well in advance and had announced his intentions on his Facebook page a day before the attack. Investigators say that he got radicalised by extremist material circulating freely on the dark web. Immediately after the incident, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern called it a ‘terrorist attack’ and condemned it without mincing words, blaming the country’s lax gun control laws. A week later, New Zealand banned assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons, in an exemplary display of preventative action to deal with mass-shootings and in stark contrast to how the United States handles these episodes.
Meanwhile, Australians were outraged by Queensland senator Fraser Anning’s statement blaming the attack on New Zealand (and Australia’s) immigration policies that allows Muslims to settle here. Anning had previously gained notoriety for his maiden speech in the parliament in which he used the phrase ‘final solution’, suggesting it was time for Australia to ban Muslims from entering the country. His statement was again widely condemned and denounced by both sides of politics; a young man called Will Connolly even gained a fan-following for egging the senator at an event. (Connolly was beaten up by Anning’s aides but avoided jail.)
In a related development, it has come to light that Australia’s One Nation party, led by controversial politician Pauline Hanson has been trying to gain funding to the tune of $20 million from America’s National Rifles Association, the problematic gun-control lobby. Media outlet Al Jazeera led a three-year sting operation to uncover how the One Nation party has been associating with the NRA for political donation, in return for promising to relax Australia’s currently strict gun-control laws. This represents a shocking betrayal of the Australian people by One Nation and after days of pressure, prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party Scott Morrison has announced that his party will preference Hanson’s party last at the coming elections. Hanson has denied the allegations and even, apparently, called for an investigation against Al Jazeera for trying to influence Australia’s elections.
In a remarkable development this fortnight, Indian prime minister delivered a televised addressed to announce that India had successfully conducted its anti-satellite missile test (ASAT) against a live satellite, catapulting its status to that of ‘an elite space power’. Currently, only the US, Russia, China and now India have demonstrated ASAT capability. Codenamed ‘Mission Shakti (strength)’, analysts were quick to draw parallels with India’s testing of its nuclear weapon in 1998 (which was called Operation Shakti). Some analysts argue that this test was also intended to test India’s ballistic missile defence interceptor capabilities, which according to them, was quite prominent in how this announcement was communicated.
US president Donald Trump claims that he has been exonerated of accusations that he colluded with the Russians to influence America’s 2016 presidential elections by the report submitted by Robert Mueller after months of investigation. However, analysts contend that it’s ‘premature’ to say that Trump has been completely exonerated, especially as the bar to prove his involvement ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is very high; additionally, the Mueller report does not absolve him of charges of obstruction of justice.
US and India have signed an agreement to jointly build 6 nuclear power plants in India, as was decided during Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to the US last week.
In naval developments this fortnight, it’s being reported that next month’s India-Australia bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX, will include anti-submarine warfare drills and feature the largest-ever Australian contingent to date comprising 1,000 defence personnel. Analysts say the fact that an Indian submarine is part of the exercise is significant and ‘a sign of how defence ties are improving’; ‘India doesn’t let just anyone hunt its subs’. Australian landing helicopter deck HMAS Canberra, auxiliary oiler replenishment ship and frigates HMAS New Castle and HMAS Parramatta will take part in the exercises, along with P8I and P8 maritime patrol aircrafts.
At the time of writing, Thailand is descending into post-electoral chaos amid claims of vote-rigging and intimidation by the military after the country voted for its parliamentary election last week. The contest is essentially between the incumbent pro-junta or pro-military Palang Pracharat Party and Pheu Thai, the pro-democracy party. Although Pheu Thai is claiming victory on the basis of having won more seats (albeit fewer votes), analysts believe the decision could go either way, given the military coup culture that has prevailed in the Southeast Asian nation for decades. ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent Liam Cochrane describes it best, ‘If the Thai election was being pitched as a new Netflix series, it would probably be a cross between House of Cards and Game of Thrones- dramatic enough to get you hooked and complex enough to sustain several seasons of binge viewing.’
Significance for Australia
The last fortnight will be remembered for a tragic and unfortunate reason but also for the grace and compassion with which New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and the country as a whole, handled the crisis. By taking decisive action on gun-control, New Zealand set an example for how to respond to a man-made tragedy. Ardern also appealed to social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter to check the spread of far-right propaganda on its platforms after live videos of the attack were allowed to proliferate online, drawing attention, once more to how difficult it is to control hate-content on the internet.
It’s time for introspection for stakeholders across the board and in all shades of politics, to decide whether they value human life over a few more seats at the elections- the current Al Jazeera controversy is a shocking reminder that encouraging inflaming rhetoric in the garb of preserving ‘free speech’ can incur very real human costs ultimately.
India’s acquisition of ASAT capability would be a cause for concern for Australia as it means further militarisation of space and potentially, a further push for an arms race in space. A distinction being pointed out between India’s test and China’s ‘cavalier’ and irresponsible test in 2007 is that India targeted a Low Earth Orbit satellite (LEO) in contrast to China; the debris from India’s test is likely to deorbit in three weeks’ time, according to experts.
How countries react to this development remains to be seen but at the time of writing, it’s become clear to me that this is another election pitch for prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. While it’s true that credit for the political will to authorise the test is due to him, some question his integrity and appropriation of the achievement for electoral purposes and violation of the ‘spirit’ of the electoral code of conduct.
Thailand’s political chaos and news of vote-rigging and manipulation are causes for deep concern in Canberra. Australia would hope for a peaceful and fair settlement of the election issue and the establishment of a democratic government in Bangkok.
News of deepening defence ties between Australia and India is bipartisanally welcome Down Under. It’s reported that Australian officials downplayed Canberra’s exclusion from this year’s Malabar exercises and added that the Quad needed to flourish in its own time. This alignment of views between Australia and India, and Australia’s obvious maturity and patience in dealing with India, was apparent from foreign minister Marise Payne’s speech at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi in January this year (something I touched upon in my piece here). Amid all the speculation of Quad becoming redundant, it’s refreshing to see India and Australia work on strengthening their bilateral relationship.