No votes in knowing the neighbors

Foreign policy issues avoided during election, trade deal still needs to be ratified

No votes in knowing the neighbors AFP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim/Pool/AFP

The May 18 Australian Federal election delivered a result few predicted – the return of the Liberal-National Party. This ensures a further three-year term for the conservative coalition that won office in 2013.

Back then, leader Tony Abbott slapped foreign policy on the agenda by declaring his government would be “more Jakarta and less Geneva”. First stop in his travel plans was the Indonesian capital. 

Within days of being sworn in as the 28thPrime Minister, Abbott was in the Big Durian. A politician honoring his promise suggested a new dawn breaking in Australian-Indonesian relationships.

That cheery vista was made easier through Indonesia being led at the time by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY); the former general was a bit of an Australophile. In 2010 he became the first Indonesian president to address a joint session of the Australian parliament.  

The weather improved further when Abbott added he wanted friendship based on “no surprises and … mutual trust”. But within a fortnight these fine ambitions had been incinerated in a bonfire of clumsy espionage. 

Journalists revealed that Australian government spies had eavesdropped the phones of SBY and his wife Kristiani “Ani” Herawati. In mid November Indonesia took the most serious diplomatic expression of outrage by pulling Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoemaout of Canberra.  

More than a year later the anger was still warm. President Joko Widodo was then in office and much cooler to the folks next door. This was made brutally obvious when he snubbed Abbott’s pleas for clemency and ordered two reformed Australian drug runners, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, to be executed.

Other wounds in the relationship have since been bandaged largely by Abbott’s successor Malcolm Turnbull getting on well with President Joko.  But Turnbull was ousted last year by Scott Morrison, who almost immediately infuriated Indonesia by proposing to move his nation’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

No surprise that contestants in this year’s Federal election recalled Abbott’s misfortunes and Morrison’s missteps, so steered clear of the quicksands.

Consequently, foreign affairs hardly featured in the five-week campaign that hunkered down on domestic issues. Foreign minister Senator Marise Payne, who has been in the job for just eight months, offered the usual blandishments about closer engagement, as did her rival, Labor’s Penny Ying-Yen Wong.

The Malaysian-born Senator talked about reviving Asian literacy, although this wasn’t new. Academics and a few far-sighted politicians have long grumbled that the downhill interest in Asian languages and culture should be arrested.  

There are occasional tweaks of policy in the states which run schools, but so far no major turn around.

The rarely articulated secret belief is that foreigners should learn English. This smug cat was let out of the bag in 2016 by former West Australian Premier Colin Barnett. He told a Jakarta trade conference that bilingualism was unimportant because most meetings were held in English.

Maybe true at state level – although the asides are usually in the local tongue, leaving monolingual Australian negotiators nonplussed. And how about communicating with ordinary folk?

For Australia’s mainstream political parties, foreign policy has traditionally been bi-partisan, differing only on details and priorities. Labor and Liberal-National continue to worry about dealing with China’s hegemony while still supporting the ANZUS security treaty signed with the US and New Zealand in 1951.

The campaign concentrated on wages, taxes and jobs. These are the staples of most stable democracies in peacetime. Foreign policy was for eggheads.

John McCarthy, former president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and Ambassador to Indonesia (1996-2001), showed why candidates fear foreign affairs.  

In an early May pre-election speech at Melbourne University he said:  “It is worth remembering that of the three Labor opposition leaders elected to the prime ministership since the war Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd two came into the job with ambitious visions for new Asian architecture. 

“Both crashed spectacularly. Jakarta poured cold water on Whitlam’s admittedly loose ideas for some kind of new regional grouping. Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community proposal was sprung on the region literally overnight and likewise dispatched swiftly to its diplomatic burial chamber.”

In 2011, Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard released the “Australia in the Asian Century”White Paper. McCarthy said no money was provided to implement “its sensible and far sighted recommendations.”  

The new Australian government has one major Indonesian issue demanding early attention – parliamentary ratification of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA); this was signed in March after eight years of haggling.

Had Labor won, the bilateral trade deal might have hit hurdles over clauses on investor-state dispute settlement procedures. Now it’s likely to get a clear run allowing Australian grain and beef exports into the Republic with low or no tariffs.

But it also needs to be approved by Indonesia’s House of Representative, which has a new makeup since the nation’s April 17 election. With protectionism on the rise and calls for the government to hasten food self sufficiency programs, the agreement can still stall or fall.

This will happen if more spying, Israeli deals, death penalties or other upsets erupt and arouse the electorate. So no surprise Australian politicians tiptoe around Southeast Asia. They’d know how to handle such alarms and stride with purpose had they studied Indonesian culture at school.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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