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A new turn in the Australian-Indonesian relationship?

An Australian prime minister visiting Indonesia is nothing new, but Kevin Rudd’s current visit is generating more than the usual amount of attention, coinciding with the DFAT release of its Indonesia Country…

Kevin Rudd’s visit to Indonesia may yet mark a high point between the two countries.

An Australian prime minister visiting Indonesia is nothing new, but Kevin Rudd’s current visit is generating more than the usual amount of attention, coinciding with the DFAT release of its Indonesia Country Strategy, and the day after one of Q&A’s most penetrating discussions from its Jakarta panelists.

While we historians can always argue about whether the current moment is the highpoint in Australian-Indonesian relations (more important than Australia’s support for Indonesian independence? I don’t think so), certainly the visit sends positive signals.

The three main issues discussed were the predictable ones; live cattle, refugees and Papua/West Papua. But both sides presented new angles on these issues.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made it clear that refugees (“boat people”) were not his country’s highest priority, but also made generous gestures to Rudd’s domestic concerns by showing that Indonesia wanted to do something about the problem.

His multilateral approach is right - it will be impossible for one country acting alone to stop the tragic loss of lives. There have to be regionally-based attempts that include other ASEAN nations, and importantly solutions that include the source countries. Solving the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan is probably still going to be a tall order.

As yet no one has mentioned the strange anomaly of Australia’s two “external territories” lying just off the coast of Indonesia: Cocos Keeling Islands and Christmas Island. Should their status also be part of discussions?

The cattle export issue requires a lateral solution, one that will not involve further animal cruelty. The idea of trying to develop some kind of joint industry is a positive one, since there are a lot of possibilities for a regional focus that takes in eastern Indonesia and northern Australia.

Doing this would actually reopen a connection with a deep past: I’m part of a project that has been researching the flourishing pearl-shell industry that existed between our two countries from 1905 to 1942. It is important to jointly develop larger endeavours, rather than focus on single aspects of trade. Encouraging Australian investment in Indonesia would be a good step along the way.

Papua/West Papua invokes an instinctive nationalist reaction from Indonesians. A new strategy of greater regional autonomy announced by the President would be a possible first step in healing this running sore. Nevertheless, Indonesia is yet to take clear action against members of the military and police responsible for human rights abuses. Doing so, and opening up the region to greater scrutiny by journalists and human rights observers, would go a long way to improving Indonesia’s international standing.

While the relationship is going well, it will not take much to unsettle it: there are enough inflammatory statements by Australian rednecks and Indonesian ultra-nationalists circulating online to show that it is easy to play to stereotypes on both sides.

A change of government in Australia would probably not greatly upset matters, unless Australia took wild unilateral actions. On the other hand, the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections take us into unknown territory. President Yudhoyono cannot run again, and there is little enthusiasm for his family members who want to run in his place.

A worst-case scenario would see Major General (ret) Prabowo Subianto become president. Prabowo’s record in East Timor, West Papua, and in the student riots of 1998 is well-known. The indications are that he would be much more aggressive in prosecuting an ultra-nationalist agenda than was his late father-in-law, Suharto. The pundits favour ex-furniture salesman and charismatic mayor of Jakarta, Jokowi (Joko Wibowo). He would be a liberal leader who could help develop the economy, but current predictions have it that Jokowi might run with Prabowo as his deputy. Indonesian democracy is now very robust, but will it be robust enough for such an arrangement?

I was recently in Jakarta, where I found that, more than ever, Indonesians appreciate Australia, probably more than Australians appreciate Indonesia (Bali excepted). It was fun to be discussing the history of Australian-Indonesian relations, and to have a jilbab (hijab)-wearing student talk about how much she likes Bondi Rescue. A large number of Indonesians have spent time in Australia, but far fewer Australians have spent time in Indonesia.

While Q&A had a mainly-Indonesian panel who could discuss matters of great complexity in English, it will be a long time before a panel of Australian media editors, NGO leaders and government advisors will be able to speak so eloquently in Indonesian.

One of the biggest challenges is addressing the asymmetrical nature of the connection between our countries. My Indonesian interlocutors brought this home to me in Jakarta by asking whether Indonesia really needs Australia as much as Australia needs Indonesia? I don’t have easy answers to that question, but finding ways to address it should be a major preoccupation of the political leaders on both sides.

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Trevor Kerr


    That asymmetry is the crux. For as long as Australia wants to keep seeing irregular migrants as a problem for Australia with solutions that Indonesia "ought" to apply, Indonesia will have no advantage in seeking progress in any other domain of interest to both, say, Papua.
    Sure, Indonesia will graciously accept aid from, and military training with Australia. But, in case the "refugee" issue continues to smoulder for years more, is there anything Australia can offer as a point of dialogue with pluses for both and no downside? What's the latest on all those primary schools that were funded by Australia? There must be more, lots more, that we can offer in tertiary education, judging by the numbers of East and South Asians paying for it.

  2. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter

    Hell, let's get some unregulated live cattle exports going in defiance of their laws. I'm sure organised crime networks here and there will be willing and able to handle the logistics with the help of their famously corrupt law enforcement. That might convince them that passively allowing criminals to dictate and implement border control policy isn't neighbourly behaviour.

  3. Marilyn Shepherd


    Why do we have to keep up the pretence that either country gives a damn about refugees and why do the Australian media keep obsessing about the few thousand that come via Indonesia anyway?

    Refugees are humans, they have the same rights as us but we grant them less respect than we do the damn cows we want to export.

    Australia's media are collectively as dumb, lazy, racist and pandering to the Indonesian's as the pollies are as they ignore the ethnic cleansing in West Papua, indeed Australia…

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    1. John C Smith


      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      A heart that doesn't bleed for the 40 or more million refugees and asylum seekers in the world. they cant pay or buy a free dinner for the bleeding hearts, do-gooders and refugee asylum seeker entrepreneurs of Australia.

    2. John C Smith


      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      We should stop given aid. King Buthelezi, a Zulu King said: don't give us bread, show us how to make bread.
      Let us give subsidies, tax concessions and allowances to any one who starts a business in poor countries and populations.

    3. John C Smith


      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      "Would we whinge and carp about the refugees if they were nice, white, blue eyed blonde?". Unfortunately they don't claim refuge or asylum and we still deport them if they overstayed.

  4. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    "I was recently in Jakarta, where I found that, more than ever, Indonesians appreciate Australia,"

    That's certainly the opposite to the commentary in the Jakarta Post on Thursday

    "The country (Australia) is perceived as an arrogant neighbor that has a strong sense of superiority toward us...that has little respect for Indonesia".

    1. Marilyn Shepherd


      In reply to Tony Xiao

      I agree with the Jakarta Post, we treat Indonesia like a colonial outpost of rich white Australia with us playing the over lord.

      Except we train and support all the murderous thugs who slaughter the innocent and jail refugees for us.

    2. Dalit Prawasi

      Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      What about the sacred cattle?

    3. Kevin Bain


      In reply to Tony Xiao

      I read the Jakarta Post article you cited. It also says "In every way Indonesia is a major state and it is only right that it holds an honorable position among the international community. But we also need to behave as a great nation, one for which its people have high respect. There are 1,000 reasons to hate Australia, but we must also be ready when the same reasons are applied to us.
      Paper Edition | Page: 2

    4. Kevin Bain


      In reply to Kevin Bain

      The point is that progress will never happen if people are not smart enough to look at the whole picture of opinions and facts about Indonesia. Then we just get inflammatory indignation from people unable to deal with the fact that the rest of the world is different. we have to find ways to deal with it rather than just object to it, and there are no pushbutton answers.

      The JP article is at Don't forget the Reader Comments at the end of the article too, for a fuller picture.

  5. Dalit Prawasi

    Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

    There is a different psyche when it comes to neighbors among Anglo Saxons.They do not value their neigbours unless they run out of salt or sugar. Llooks like it extends to Anglo Saxon nations.

    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dalit Prawasi

      Lucky, then, that there as many Anglo Saxons in Australia as there are Javanese in the Indonesian Archipelago.

  6. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    Any article that fails to mention the big problems with the Indonesian panellists on Q&A, and the big problem with debates on Indonesia-Australia relations generally, surely misses the point.

    Strategic policy debates in Australia concerning Indoneasia-Australia relations are prone to falling into the trap of just accepting claims by Indonesian officials or academics at face value rather than discussing them objectively - as we would if they had been statements by Australian officials or other…

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    1. Kevin Bain


      In reply to Neil James

      You worry about the body language without awareness of your own unfortunate phrase of “the big problems with the Indonesian panellists”. In suggesting they should be lectured about their failure to echo Hatta’s views, and confronting them by jumping straight to the divisive issues, do you think this is a likely way to find common ground? (They aren’t politicians but civil society leaders by the way.)

      You also say Indonesia is instrinsically and irredeemably colonialist. If we aspire to high principle…

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  7. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email

    Indeed the Commonwealth of Australia praises Indonesia as a model Muslim democracy. Australians are now being force-fed halal meat. “Halal” means lawful for Muslims and “haram” means sinful. Australia supplies chilled “halal” meat to Indonesia while “haram” slaughter is conducted by mindless brutes in Indonesia’s 750 abattoirs and potentially hundreds more unregistered slaughter locations.

    Australia’s AusAid donates > $500 million/year plus another $60 million to have its cattle heinously…

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  8. Kevin Bain


    Adrian, as usual lots of clashing anecdotes and interpretations about Indonesian motives ventilated here. My own view is that our personal encounters with Indonesia are mostly "Bali experiences", and combining Indonesian "gold diggers" with Australian "bargain hunters" is not the ideal environment for understanding and respect. But it's to the credit of both sides that there are so many positive feelings and Aussies keep going back.

    The big picture is what matters here, and the Lowy Institute…

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