Australian people-to-people engagement needs democracy

Australia should be doing more to help advance and support the profess of democracy in Southeast Asia, writes James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan.

Australia is not known to engage with independent civil society. Comfortable with a decades-long approach of cosying up to the conservative elites in the region, it has kept a focus on the economic and security sectors, and their engagement with Southeast Asia on the people-to-people front has been limited and narrow, even in the most crucial times.

While Australia subscribes to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) that aligns major democratic powers surrounding China (India, Japan and the United States) and ASEAN to a liberal, rules based order across the Indo-Pacific, Australia’s foreign policy credentials on democracy promotion in the region are unclear.

Australia is not a member State of the Community of Democracies (COD) though Australian experts have contributed to COD studies on constitutional matters in Myanmar, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea. Australia should aim to be on the Governing Council of COD.

Its contributions to the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) have dwindled from over AUD$7 million in 2005 to zero in 2021, and should be resumed.

Australia is a founding member of the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (or International IDEA) and is chair of its office for Asia and the Pacific. It aims to “work closely with Member States” to support International IDEA’s work, and we look forward to seeing evidence of this in relation to Southeast Asia.

The advancement of democracy and human rights is an important concern of the people in the region and should not be ignored. Hence, Australia should adopt a holistic approach to people-to-people engagement that includes civil society working on issues related to democracy and human rights in the region.

Does it want to pursue a values-based diplomacy where issues of democracy and human rights are prioritised or does it want to pursue a classical realist approach sans the incumbrance of values? This is a fundamental question that Australia must address. To do so, it must first decide whether it is possible to separate human rights from the geopolitics of the 21st  century and how to insulate the advancement of democracy and rights from the vagaries noted above.

When it makes sense of its way forward, Australia also needs to consider what instrument it wants to use to coordinate its people-to-people engagement. For many years, the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the National Security College, Australian National University received grants to work in this area. However, research has pointed to the need for a wider range of multi-sectoral initiatives to advance democracy in Asia.

Australia may find it useful to coordinate its efforts on people-to-people engagement through a statutory body - an Australian Democracy Foundation (ADF) - with a mandate and financial support from Parliament to directly engage in democracy promotion in partnership with civil society in Southeast Asia and beyond.

It is noteworthy that countries that have transitioned to democracy in Asia have created such foundations - the Korean Democracy Foundation (KDF) and the Taiwan Democracy Foundation (TDF). A proposal for a Malaysian Democracy Foundation (MDF), which would be the first in Southeast Asia, was made by Asia Centre.

As with the proposed MDF, activities of an Australian democracy foundation could include organising democracy-themed events, undertaking research, and providing grants. Australia’s civil society, including its think tanks, are poised to make a difference.

A newly minted ADF would throw Australia into sharper relief as a champion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the region, and a notable distinction in the context of the geopolitics of the FOIP.

The statist approach to foreign policy engagement in Southeast Asia is a relic of the past. Canberra must consider how it can better serve the needs of people in Southeast Asia and the wider region as the struggles for democracy continue in countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines.

Pending  clear commitment as suggested above, Australia will remain absent in Southeast Asia’s independent civil society space. It can continue with a lopsided people-to-people engagement or choose a holistic approach that also includes working with those engaged in democracy and human rights in the region.

James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan are directors  at the human rights think-tank, Asia Centre. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.