Ambassador’s return to Indonesia shows his recall was futile

Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia Paul Grigson (right) returned to Indonesia this week. AAP/Aaron Bunch

Five weeks after the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the Australian government has sent its recalled ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, back to Jakarta.

The Indonesian government had anticipated any diplomatic fallout from the executions would only be temporary. It was right. But Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is still tense.

In returning Grigson to the post so swiftly, the Australian government proved that its choice to put its relationship with Indonesia at risk for short-term political opportunism was pointless.

Short-lived outrage

Before and immediately after the executions, public discussion was weighted significantly against Indonesia’s use of the death penalty specifically in the case of the two rehabilitated Australians.

Australian politicians made a political calculation that the majority of Australians were against the executions. This was reflected in the almost universal sense of moral outrage and bitterness at Indonesia’s failure to cede to the demands of the Australian government.

Politicians used emotive language following the executions. They saw the actions as “cruel”,“inhumane” and “disgusting”.

Reminiscent of old colonial attitudes, a number of politicians – including Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – used the term “barbaric”.

By escalating the indignation to score cheap political points, Australia’s politicians compromised any sense of moral authority. And it now appears particularly hollow, given the issue of the executions has almost entirely disappeared off the public radar.

While this is symptomatic of the 24-hour news cycle, it also reflects short-term political opportunism and a preference for spectacle and “vaudeville”. The short attention span of the Australian public meant Indonesia could confidently predict that the issue would quickly blow over.

Recalling the ambassador

The Australian government rhetoric required a show of “strong leadership”. It made the unprecedented move of recalling Grigson to express its displeasure at the executions. It was the diplomatic equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum.

An Australian ambassador has never been recalled from Indonesia, not even after the Indonesian military murdered five Australian journalists in Balibo. If there is a particular symbolism in the first time Australia recalls an ambassador, it was wasted here.

The Australian government quickly shifted its language to emphasise a commitment to strong bilateral relations and Indonesia’s importance. This sent out a mixed message as the words stood in conflict with its actions.

If Australia’s actions in recalling Grigson were an effort to play to a domestic audience, it misread public opinion. Recent polling found that the Australian public were quick to move on and divided on whether the executions warranted retaliatory action.

The threats of government officials that Australians would boycott Indonesia as a holiday destination came to naught. Australian tourism to Bali appears to have increased.

Recalling the ambassador ended up annoying both sides of the debate. Comments left on the ABC Facebook page after Grigson was sent back to Jakarta show that, for those who wanted stronger sanctions, the action was “weak” and “pathetic”. People who regarded Indonesia’s sovereignty as paramount think it was “pointless”.

Engaging Indonesia

Before the 2013 election, a Coalition government was expected to be foreign affairs realists rather than middle-power activists. The Coalition promised to adopt a “no surprises” approach to foreign policy, building on the “grounded pragmatic understanding” of the Howard government. This included re-building “strong and effective relations with our neighbourhood”.

The “more Jakarta less Geneva” slogan reflected the government’s preference for bilateral relationships ahead of multilateral forums.

What has eventuated is quite the opposite. While Australia’s time on the United Nations Security Council has been widely regarded as a foreign policy success, its relationship with Indonesia has suffered numerous setbacks under the Coalition government.

In November 2013, emeritus professor Joseph Camilleri wrote that the new Coalition government was “unusually clumsy and short-sighted” in dealing with Indonesia.

The Abbott government had refused to apologise for Australia spying on senior Indonesian leaders. It was determined to “stop the boats” – irrespective of Indonesia’s concerns about its sovereignty.

On the latter, Camilleri argued:

The clear inference of the Abbott strategy was that Australian sovereignty was somehow superior to Indonesian sovereignty.

This attitude underpinned the government’s handling of the Bali Nine executions.

If Australia chooses to take a more activist role, then a more meaningful and coherent human rights policy in Australia would give public diplomacy greater moral thrust.

Fragile ties

Australia cannot afford leaders to prioritise short-term opportunism over long-term strategic interests. Recalling Grigson was not only futile, but further damaged already fragile ties with Indonesia.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott argued that Australia’s relations with Indonesia are “strong and getting stronger”. But this is not the case. Despite the nonchalance of the Indonesian government towards Australia recalling Grigson, it has exacerbated tensions.

For instance, this week the Indonesian government made Australia wait on whether it would send ministers to a counter-terrorism summit. The Indonesian attorney-general’s department ultimately declared it would send only lower-ranked officials.

Now it is Australia’s responsibility to rebuild the relationship. Australia should focus on fostering greater co-operation with Indonesia in an effort to improve understanding between the two states.

Indonesia’s leadership will not be lectured to on human rights issues by Australia, nor will it be strong-armed into making decisions it sees as contrary to its own political preservation.

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