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The blunder Down Under

An Indonesian poster protesting Tony Abbott over spying allegations. Photo by AFP.
04 June 2014
An Indonesian poster protesting Tony Abbott over spying allegations. Photo by AFP.

Australia-Indonesia relations are stepping towards normalisation. But can we avoid making the same mistakes we have made for decades, asks Jacqueline Baker.

Last week, Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Najib Riphat Kesoema, made a discreet return to Canberra. 

This week sees the Prime Minister Tony Abbott meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Batam islands for a concerted effort at reconciliation before SBY’s final term is up.  

It’s the first meeting between the country’s two leaders in six months.

There are other signs of thaw in what has been a frosty relationship of late. 

In the wake of the phone tapping scandal, Ambassador Kesoema has made optimistic remarks about reaching a deal on the code of conduct on electronic surveillance. 

And although cooperation on key issues like intelligence, military exercises and people smuggling remain on hold, Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman Teuku Faizasyah has made it clear that these activities will resume once the code is signed.

If news reports are to be believed, this return to normality has been in large part due to the goodwill of the SBY administration, who have repeatedly extended invitations to meet and reconcile. 

This has been despite our refusal to apologise for bugging the President and wife’s phone in the first place and foot-dragging on the code of conduct. The invitation to Batam comes after the gaffe of Abbott’s no-show at the Open Government Partnership in Bali last month – again at the invitation of SBY.

The question remains:  why did the resumption of relations turn on SBY’s statesmanship. More significantly, why does Australia manage the bilateral relationship so badly?

The Coalition government doesn’t have sole purchase on Indonesian missteps. Abbott is only one bad link in a broken chain that stretches back to the turn of the century.

ANU professor Hugh White observes that since 1998, the bilateral relationship has been poor. We shouldn’t think about this as the lingering bad taste of Australia’s intervention in East Timor. Rather, relations declined with the fall of Suharto’s New Order and Indonesia’s ensuing turn to democracy.

This seems a little counterintuitive. Surely, two democracies should get along swimmingly.

In theory yes. But the truth is, new democracies are complicated. They’re supposed to develop in phases. In reality, they’re always moving in contradictory directions.

With Indonesia’s democratisation, suddenly the political terrain got a whole lot more complicated and Australia just doesn’t have the political skills, let alone the white paper to manage it. 

Indonesia’s fragmentation of political power has stripped bare our own inability to navigate a multiparty democracy in a complex political landscape. We just don’t do complexity in the regional relationship very well.

Our poor strategic thinking on Indonesia stems from two main problems: the absence of opportunity for people with Indonesia skills and the way that employment field has narrowed solely to government. 

It doesn’t help that over the past 10 years, in the absence of government support, our rich and diverse Indonesian studies in the country’s universities and schools have been cramped to just a few centres of expertise.  Our relationship with Indonesia has been pushed into just a few sectors.

If you have any skills in Indonesia these days it’s a pretty narrow employment field. Most businesses can’t imagine what to do with a graduate with Indonesia know-how.  The political parties don’t put Indonesia skills on their radar either. Pushing for language and cultural capacity to meet the “Asian Century” is all very well, but many Australians have those skills and employers seem baffled by what to do with them.  

If you know anything about Indonesia, then it’s off to government you must trudge, generally into aid, defence and foreign affairs. But here, Indonesia-skills are just side-trade to being a dependable bureaucrat and not nurtured as a strategic assets in and of themselves.

And what did government do with its monopoly share on the relationship in the new operating environment after 1998? Mainly, it did aid. As a result, over the past decade our expectations of what aid should deliver has changed significantly, from alleviating poverty to channeling the political nuances of the bilateral relationship.

Our aid, put in service of the poor, is largely well thought through and spent. For all of Suharto’s state-building, democratisation exposed Indonesia as an extremely weak and in parts, desperately fragile, state.

But throwing our political lot in with our aid budget has cramped our strategic thinking. Under former Prime Minister Paul Keating, Indonesia was the “butter for our bread”. In this decade, Indonesia has been our charity case. 

The bigger problem with this is that aid has allowed us to keep our political thinking about Indonesia simplistic, at a time when Indonesia’s domestic politics were becoming more complex.

Compare that to the 1940s and the days of Indonesia’s independence struggle, when Australian trade unions rejected unloading Dutch boats. Or when the Australian communist party lobbied to free Indonesian political prisoners held alongside Japanese prisoners of war in Cooma.

This is not about lefty ideas. It’s about the fact that the bilateral relationship is going to suffer from strategic sense if government is the only player. 

Indeed, at certain points in our history, the relationship has been strengthened by the sentiments of ordinary people and their ability to forge bonds of solidarity across the seas in ways that seem distant now.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 10-year term is about to end.  The bilateral relationship is going to fundamentally change. Some say it is set to get harder.

The question is, do we have the political savvy to manage it? 

Dr Jacqueline Baker teaches and researches Indonesian politics at the Department of Political and Social Change in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

She is a co-editor of Southeast Asia academic blog New Mandala’s special coverage of Indonesia’s current elections.



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team