International rules-based orders are great. There are so many rules to choose from.
One of the most annoying aspects of Australia’s recent sinophobic political spasm is its assumption that it is on the side of the angels where governance, human rights and democracy are concerned. And because it’s good to itself, its influence on the Pacific is necessarily just as good.
It’s easy to see why this would appear to be the case. Australia is unambiguously free-er than China. It has a vibrant and suitably raucous media establishment that rips and tears at every good story like a pound lot dog.
Admittedly, it occasionally looks about as pretty as a pound lot dog, but we’re not here to discuss the finer points of pedigree. The fact is that there is enough diversity and vigour in Australian media that nobody with power or money can rest entirely easy.
Australia is going through ructions right now, as party operatives and corporate interests (media included) play Samson with the pillars of democracy. It’s miles beyond the scope of this rant to dictate what’s good for Australian democracy, but it is appropriate to state that no matter what happens, it’ll happen under the klieg-light scrutiny of a corps of experienced, skilled and devoted journalists.
To say that the same is not true in the Pacific islands in a mild understatement.
Rules don’t have the same force in many Pacific countries as they do elsewhere. Few people know about them. Fewer still understand what they’re for and how they work. There’s never enough money to enforce them. They get enforced selectively or sporadically if at all, and some people become skilled at flouting them. Some even make careers out of it.
Impunity becomes so deeply rooted it becomes part of the culture. It’s hard to see the rules even as a pretence.
Rule of law doesn’t break down. It gets worn away.
The corollary is that rule of law isn’t built. It accumulates. And it has to accumulate faster than it gets worn away.
One of the ways it accumulates is like the proverbial grain of sand in the oyster. Without an irritant, the oyster will never produce anything of value. (Except, of course, the oyster. Which is delicious.) It’s true that some modern media have learned that you get bigger, prettier pearls by inserting hollow irritants into the oysters. It’s also true that this mostly happens in industrialised, profitable oyster farms.
But enough metaphor—and oyster—abuse. The point is this: Media don’t, and shouldn’t, make the rules, but without media, it is impossible to know who’s following them, or even to know what they are.
Democracies, in short, require those irritating little prats that keep interrupting you with facts.
So any nation that upholds the rules has to uphold the media. You can’t do one without the other. Cavil and equivocate all you like. You cannot promote a rules-based order and not promote the media. Promote, not tolerate. Your own and everyone else’s.
Sovereignty doesn’t come into it. If someone is abusing media freedom, they are announcing their intention to break the rules. And yes, pedants: decisions to censor or abridge the rights of the media are sovereign choices. But sovereigns who engage in media suppression are not participating in a rules-based international order.
They’re doing the opposite.
It’s one thing to respect a friend’s right to behave badly. It’s another thing entirely to use that respect as a pretext to hang out with a bad crowd. And it’s another, er, other thing to use their sovereignty as cover, enticing or allowing them to do things your own rules don’t allow.
If you stand for a rules-based international order, you accept the discomfort and inconvenience of the nattering, bickering, second-guessing, disrespectful, addle-pated magpies of the media.
You don’t just accept it, in fact. You seek it out. You find space for it. You make space for it. You feed it. (Oysters if they’re fresh.) You welcome it. You celebrate it. You use it as a check on itself, even.
I am optimistic about New Zealand and Australia’s recent announcements concerning their relationship with Pacific nations. I believe they’re sincere in their belief that they truly are best friends to us. I believe in many ways they are.
But they’ve got to make sure that we are the right kind of best friend. Because if we’re best friends of negotiable virtue, as Terry Pratchett so delicately put it, you might be teaching us how to be ‘best friends’ with anyone and everyone. At an hourly rate.
But if we’re the best friends who are unafraid to tell each other when our butt looks too big in that, then maybe we can build trust. And from that trust, rule of law can grow.
Where media is concerned, that means Australia has to support its own. And they have to support everyone else’s. It’s really all ours, anyway. We’ll be telling Australia’s stories to our audience, and they’ll be telling our stories to theirs. And vice versa.
And because rules-based orders don’t just appear overnight, they’ve got to commit to the discomfort of doing it for a generation at least.