'Misbehaving Matilda steals the headlines from important international political meeting'

Mick Le Moignan

By Mick Le Moignan

The big news in Australia this month was the ASEAN–Australia Special Summit in Melbourne. The leaders of nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met PM Anthony Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and other big cheeses to discuss matters of common interest in the areas of international diplomacy and trade.

At least the Special Summit should have been the big news, but in terms of headlines and column inches, it was swamped by “sensational” news from London: Sam Kerr, much-admired captain of the Australian soccer team (the Matildas) and prolific goal-scorer for Chelsea, has been charged with racially aggravated harassment. She is alleged to have “used insulting, threatening or abusive words that caused alarm or distress to a British police officer” in January 2023.

Kerr has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial in February 2025, more than two years after the alleged offence. Her lawyers have sought body-camera footage from the incident and will attempt to have the case dismissed at a preliminary hearing on 26 April on grounds of abuse of process and exceptional delay. Western Australian-born Kerr, with an Indian grandmother and a female fiancée, has been a vocal opponent of racism and prejudice.

The news divided pundit opinion along predictable lines. Some expressed shock, others disbelief. Craig Foster, retired Australian soccer player and human rights activist, had two bites at the cherry: he first insisted Kerr should resign the captaincy until the case was decided, then issued a public apology to her on the basis that the alleged insult was not racist at all.

Many were surprised at a British bobby being so easily “alarmed or distressed”. Others questioned the long delay in pressing the charge and pointed out that the textbook definition of racism requires the attacker to have higher status or power than the victim, as well as prejudice against them.

Either way, Kerr’s golden aura has been severely tarnished and she may lose some of her lucrative sponsorships. The background to the case seems to be that she scored a hat-trick of goals for Chelsea, celebrated unwisely and found herself vomiting in the back of a taxi in the early hours of the morning. The driver called the police and Kerr’s reaction was less than gracious. Surely, for the remaining sceptics about women’s football, this is conclusive proof that the girls can do anything the boys can do, and sometimes even more uncouthly.

Meanwhile, the grown-ups at the Special Summit in Melbourne were vying for attention in subtler ways. ASEAN is a political and economic union, loosely modelled on the EU but with significant local differences.

It was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, later joined by Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam. Myanmar’s membership of the bloc has been suspended for abuse of human rights since the military coup there in 2021. Timor-Leste has observer status.

The alliance represents almost 700 million people, with 6.5% of global GDP. “The ASEAN Way” is informal and personal, based on consultation, compromise and consensus. The ten nations are a Nuclear-Weapon-free Zone and aim to achieve peace, stability and sustainable development without interference. They are committed to upholding “Four Freedoms” of movement – of goods, services, skilled labour and capital. They have a “roadmap” to financial integration, but have not yet achieved it.

Successive Australian governments have viewed ASEAN with a mixture of envy and curiosity. Australia would probably like to join, but we have not been invited. Since 2007, Australia has been a member of the QUAD strategic security dialogue with the USA, Japan and India, but that is not exactly a partnership of equals. ASEAN might be a better fit and in terms of trade, a market with 28 times Australia’s population looks attractive.

So the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit is a significant feather in the Albanese government’s cap, on a par with persuading China to lift the bans or tariffs imposed on a wide range of goods in response to the previous government’s open hostility. Chinese trade restrictions were placed on goods including barley, beef, coal, wine, timber, cotton and even lobsters.

The first of the ASEAN leaders to surface was President Ferdinand Marcos of the Phillipines. It’s OK, you haven’t strayed into a nightmare time warp: proving again the old adage that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it, they really have elected another Marcos, less than 40 years after kicking out the previous fraudulent, corrupt dictator of that name and his shoe-mad wife, Imelda.

Albanese welcomed Marcos Mk 2, politely omitted to mention the widespread human rights abuses in his country or his parents’ penchant for filling their many boots with precious stones and cash, and invited him to address Parliament. Marcos declared his determination to “stand up” to China’s appropriation of strategic islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines, “and not to yield one square inch of our sovereign territory”.

Later at the Summit, Anwar Ibrahim, Prime Minister of Malaysia, took a vastly different approach, urging the USA and its allies to accept China as a legitimate superpower. He said the risk of conflict in the South China Sea had been “exaggerated” and warned that China would certainly “reunify” with Taiwan and that any American attempt to prevent that by military force could be catastrophic for the world:

“Force has been used by the US in their foreign policy more than any other country, for the right and the wrong reasons. And most often – in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan – the consensus is for the wrong reasons.”

Ibrahim accused Western nations of hypocrisy: it’s fair enough to support Ukraine against Russia’s brutal invasion – but why turn a blind eye to Israel’s indiscriminate slaughter of 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza?

This was fighting talk from a non-aligned nation, demonstrating its independence and challenging conventional views on a vital issue.

It certainly deserves more attention than a rude footballer.

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