There is an old saying about a pot calling a kettle black. We’re all familiar with it. In simple terms it refers to hypocrisy. In 1983 Al Pacinco put it a different way when he played drug lord Tony Montana in the cult film, Scarface. Whilst drunk and high on coke in a hi-so Miami restaurant, he staggers around the dining room telling the other diners that they needed people like him, so they could point their fingers and say ‘That’s the bad guy’.
Some thirty odd years later things haven’t changed. We need a bad guy. And right now, when it comes to people smuggling in the Asia Pacific region, there are a lot of people in that same restaurant, all pointing their fingers saying ‘that’s the bad guy’. On every table now there are pots calling the kettle black. The latest to have a finger waved angrily at them is the Australian Federal government, who have all but admitted to paying off people smugglers in order to ‘stop the boats’.
Forgive me for pointing my own finger, but assuming Australian officials have been paying off the boat smugglers, Indonesia’s reaction is a bit over board (pardon the pun). For a nation that would rank among the most corrupt in the region, with bribery and ‘justice for sale’ an almost post card slogan, the finger pointing and outrage is almost laughable. While two wrongs don’t make a right, and to join the ranks of a nation built on systemic and organised corruption doesn’t do Australia any favours, let’s look at it another way.
Perhaps the real reason Indonesia is so angry has nothing to do with the bribery itself; rather the means by which it was processed, who received the money, the fact that no permission was sought to hand it over and that the transaction has raised the issue of corruption in the public arena.
When the average westerner thinks of bribery, they think of shady characters handing envelopes filled with cash to corrupt officials to let them off with a warning, or to turn a blind eye. But that’s an over simplification. When it comes to hot topics such as human trafficking, drug smuggling or terrorism, bribery in developing countries is a process of negotiation and complex rules with forever changing bends and blurred lines designed to maintain the centre of power and exclude those outside it.
So if the reports are true, that Australian officials simply handed bags of cash to the boat captains and asked them to return to where they came from, it was a crude attempt that underestimates the organised nature and sophistication of bribery. Saving face is part of the entire process. So too is status and hierarchy. Breach any of those rules and the process fails. In short, you can’t just hand over a bag of cash to someone who isn’t allowed to accept it. You have to put it in the right hands to ensure it moves around in a manner that both protects and benefits the food chain.
Let’s look at it another way. All that a democratic and first world citizenry asks of its government is that it does the job it was elected to do. “Get on with it,” is the catchcry of electorates everywhere. And no prouder boast can an administration make than “we got the job done”.
Australia elected the Abbott Government to do one job: stop the boats and the boats have indeed been stopped… well, sort of.
How was it done? Is it really our place to ask? When the girl at McDonald’s says your quarter pounder is ready, do you ask how? Do you ask what’s in the patty? When you buy an iPad do you ask the salesman how it was made? It would lead to a stressful existence. So does it really matter how the boats were stopped?
Of course I’m being facetious.
The plight of the Rohingya (see above image of burned bodies) is indeed grim and anyone with a shred of humanity in their body would cringe at the exploitation and atrocities that resemble all the hall marks of modern genocide and slavery. But before we go pointing any fingers at the bad guys, whoever they are, for the sake of satire let’s take a walk down memory lane.
The situation under our previous administration, when the cabinet was known to meet thrice-weekly to workshop better ways to convince people to undertake dangerous sea journeys, was a disaster. The previous government murdered thousands in its bizarre bloodlust, and everyone is grateful that that particular reign of terror is now ended, and refugees everywhere are free to live happy, healthy lives free from the peril of boats. Indeed, the present Government is a collection of some of history’s most unsung humanitarians, having saved countless lives by ensuring that no more asylum seekers will ever die or drown again within eyesight of a photographer or journalist.
So if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound? If a boat sinks and there isn’t a camera around to film it, does it make headlines?
Clearly not if you cushion the incident with bags of cash.
It would be great if we could do every job that needed doing by simply waving a big wad of cash without worrying about a bunch of angry finger pointing, but this isn’t going to happen, because everyone knows you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and you can’t make a firm yet fair immigration policy without apparently giving large amounts of cash to criminals. It’s simply a matter of “user pays”. If we wish to use boats for the purpose of stopping, we need to pay for the service. In a world where justice is for sale, it’s only fair enough to expect a price tag. So how else can this strategy be used? What other problems can we solve with money?
The budget deficit, for example… Who knows what gains in revenue could be made if we began paying businesses to make bigger profits, and paying individuals to pay more tax? Or climate change – if not possible to actually pay the climate not to change, we could at least pay people to move to higher ground, or even simpler, just pay environmentalists to shut up. We could solve the ice epidemic by paying ice dealers to stop dealing ice. We could end poverty by paying poor people not to be poor. Pay hookers to stop hooking. We could solve the housing affordability crisis by paying property developers to sell houses for less money. We could fix the education system by paying children to stop cluttering up the schools.
Show me a social problem, and I will show you a wallet with the solution.
So in the end, let’s have a bit of acknowledgment for a Government that not only knows how to get the job done, but does so without deviating from that greatest of all Western traditions: throwing money at things until they go away. The only problem it would seem, among the moral and humanitarian issues, is that we threw the money at the wrong person. We underestimated the value of saving face and following the food chain of corruption. Indonesia has been right to point the finger at us and accuse us of being the bad guy. After all, we only paid the captain and his crew. We didn’t pay the right people, those in the circle of power and those people aren’t happy. That’s why they’re pointing their fingers.
Tony Montana was right. We need people like him. We need someone to point the finger at and say “that’s the bad guy”. The only problem is that we broke the rules of bribery in South East Asia and must now own the label of ‘bad guy’, even if it’s a case of a giant pot calling an even bigger kettle black.