Time for words, not just bombs. A masterclass from China’s Xi. By Hamish McDonald.

Tony Abbott unmoved by African cries for Ebola help

A volunteer wears protective clothing to spray disinfectant on the houses of Ebola sufferers in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, this week.
A volunteer wears protective clothing to spray disinfectant on the houses of Ebola sufferers in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, this week.
Credit: AFP

While Tony Abbott milks every photo opportunity possible from the incremental use of air power in Iraq to address a “humanitarian crisis”, the contrast with Canberra’s reticence on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa becomes more excruciating.  

Who could fail to be moved by this week’s TV reports on infected people being turned away from overloaded field hospitals in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia? Australia’s six F/A-18s and support aircraft will make little difference to the fight against the Islamic State. The North Atlantic powers − even the Danes and Belgians − are already piling in behind the Americans, and our first two sorties returned to base without finding
a target they could safely shoot at without harming civilians.

By contrast, the fight against the spiralling Ebola epidemic is crying out for more governmental-military operations of the kind being provided by the United States, Britain, France and China. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has doubled Canberra’s financial contribution to the World Health Organisation and non-governmental organisations, to $18 million, but compare that with the half-billion or so price tag Abbott has blithely put on fighting the “apocalyptic death cult” in Iraq.

A week ago Médecins Sans Frontières Australia executive director Paul McPhun said Australia should stop making excuses. “As a member of the UN Security Council, Australia voted [on September 18] for a resolution calling on all UN member states to mobilise resources and expertise to West Africa, and yet is not responding with the kind of action the resolution explicitly calls for.” It’s still shirking the call of humanity.

Sure it’s a big and brave ask for Defence and other medics, but the American and other militaries are not mutinying at the deployment. Australia courted the Africans to win the UN Security Council seat that Bishop has used to the full on the Ukraine and Iraq-Syria crises. Australian companies are involved in 160 mining projects across Africa, including Rio Tinto with its contentious Simandou iron ore deposit in the heart of the Ebola region. 

Sierra Leone is a Commonwealth member. Yet it’s all too far away. Even Australians trying to help have been told they are on their own if they get infected. 

“Evacuating a patient with active Ebola is complex,” says the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “As the foreign minister has stated, given the 30-plus-hour flight time, evacuation of Australians home from West Africa is not clinically or logistically feasible. Australians working in West Africa must ensure that their employer has evacuation, treatment or contingency plans in place.”

1 . Time for words, not just bombs

The US-led fight against the IS looks more and more like a series of tactical responses without a strategy. 

Behind the tense battle for the Kurdish-populated town of Kobani on the Syria-Turkey border this week are questions that call out for some kind of grand regional bargain.

US Vice-President Joe Biden has been the fall guy to ask some of these questions, and has been doing the rounds to soothe ruffled feelings. But the questions are on the table. What will it take to get Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to establish a haven or buffer zone for refugees inside Syria? How will Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms make sure their aid doesn’t go to violent jihadists? How to build governments in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon that give security and opportunity to their Shiite and Sunni citizens alike? 

The starting question is the first. Erdoğan won’t send forces into Syria without a no-fly zone – imposed by the US-led powers – that grounds President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. He will want to see intense diplomacy aimed at power-sharing in Damascus that includes moderate Sunni groups and guarantees no retribution against the Alevis and Christians supporting Assad. 

This would mean the West talking to the Iranians, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Assad.  

2 . A masterclass from China’s Xi

Who has won the showdown in Hong Kong that looked so ominous last week? Some analysts are saying Chinese leader Xi Jinping. 

Xi has avoided a repeat of the Tiananmen bloodshed, leaving crowd control to the Hong Kong police rather than the People’s Liberation Army garrison. He’s got the protests to dwindle without conceding any change to plans for a vetting of candidates in the 2017 “free and universal” elections for the territory’s chief executive, as promised in the joint declaration about the 1997 transfer from British rule. 

Yet the students have got the Hong Kong government to agree to talks on the issue, popular feelings have been made very clear, and there will be plenty more opportunities for protest. With Beijing’s face saved, and current chief executive Leung Chun-ying not forced out, Xi might now be entering the political space where he could make concessions well ahead of 2017.

Joe Studwell, a wonderful writer on crime and cronyism in Asia, has meanwhile pointed out a deepening dilemma for Beijing in Hong Kong: its reliance on local tycoons as community and opinion leaders. Their form of Chinese “patriotism” is to suck up to the Communists in the mainland at every turn while putting the capitalist squeeze on ordinary citizens in Hong Kong. 

“Cartels are everywhere in Hong Kong,” Studwell wrote this week in the Financial Times. “Supermarkets are a duopoly, one whose pricing power allows the chains to charge higher prices for the same products in some of Hong Kong’s most deprived areas. Drug stores are a duopoly. Buses are a cartel: high-priced, mostly cash-only, running shoddy, dirty diesel vehicles with drivers who earn a pittance. Electricity is provided by two, expensive monopolies that handle everything from generation to distribution, one on Hong Kong island and the other in Kowloon. The container ports are an oligopoly, with the world’s highest handling charges. Yet they will not supply onshore electricity to vessels, which must instead run diesel generators that pollute the city air.”

Cartels, duopolies? Cruise liners that tie up alongside residential areas and need to run their diesels? Such blatant oriental abuses couldn’t take hold here in Australia, surely? How reassuring it’s just the gambling tie-up between the Packer and Ho dynasties, and Li Ka-shing’s investment in power generation and gas pipelines that’s bringing Hong Kong tycoons into the sternly competitive playing field of Australian business.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 11, 2014 as "Abbott unmoved by African cries for help".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.