Beef, boats and elections: what’s in store for the Australia-Indonesia relationship

The ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia caused a major rift in relations. Can new governments in both nations repair the damage? AAP/Animals Australia

Somehow, the debate on Indonesia-Australia relations has got stuck on Bali, beef and boats.

While there is no point pretending that either beef or boats are about to disappear as issues any time soon, we need to broaden the discussion both to understand what is at stake in the obvious differences between the two nations and to move towards the possibility of resolving them.

On the positive side the current Indonesian Cabinet is highly educated and very familiar with Australia: six of the 24 Cabinet ministers have PhDs as does Vice President Boediono.

The Vice President studied at three Australian universities, UWA, Monash and ANU. Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and Tourism minister Mari Pangestu both have ANU PhDs. Other ministers in Cabinet have spent long formative periods in USA and Europe. This is a highly educated, internationalised, Australia-literate Cabinet.

By contrast, there is no one in the Abbott Cabinet who can claim substantial knowledge of or experience in any part of Asia, let alone Indonesia. Not only is the Cabinet shamefully devoid of women, it is notably unrepresentative of Asian Australians.

Indonesia too is about to enter a presidential campaign period. Many observers have suggested that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in the last year of his second and final term of office is already a lame duck. The shape of Indonesia’s next government is hard to predict.

But as Australia saw in its own recent election campaign good sense often disappears quickly. In the Indonesian campaign, too, one should anticipate that nationalist fervour will rise – it is never far from the surface of Indonesian politics anyway.

Three Presidential candidates, most discussed in the Indonesian national media are: Abu Rizal Bakrie (super rich and mired in New Order and post New Order controversies), Prabowo (Suharto’s son-in-law, who is banned from entering the US because of accusations of human rights violations), and Jokowi (Joko Widodo, the immensely popular governor of Jakarta).

Jokowi is a self-made millionaire who started as a small businessman in the furniture industry. As Mayor of Solo (2005–2012), Jokowi revitalised local businesses and the arts community. As Jakarta governor he has begun the work of fixing up the city’s decrepit transport system. Though less discussed, in both cities Jokowi has also worked to support and regulate the small traders. In Solo, he ran heavily on a brand of local cultural identity. How any of this will translate into his presidential campaign is hard to predict.

Bakrie, everyone suspects, will do more or less what suits his own business and political interests, and it would be easy for him to play the economic nationalist card from time to time. No-one expects him to have a consistent hand on the economic till.

Prabowo’s appeal is a lot like that of Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra. He has a huge rural popularity but no support amongst the educated elites. Notably, Prabowo’s hero is Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. We would expect him to jump on the nationalist bandwagon whenever it suits him – and it is quite likely to suit him a lot of the time.

In this context, Australia’s new agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce and his brand of economic nationalism is a perfect foil. One can see escalating nationalism in economic debate on both sides to the detriment of the kind of integration needed for long-term prosperity and stability in the region.

Australia’s new agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce’s views on foreign ownership may create conflict with a new Indonesia government. AAP/Alan Porritt

Prabowo is worth looking at a little more closely. He is the son of one of Indonesia’s leading intellectuals and connected both through his own family and that of his ex-wife (Siti Hariyadi, Suharto’s daughter) to a massively influential business and political network. Prabowo is named after an uncle who was a hero of the anti-Dutch nationalist revolution.

Prabowo’s grandfather and father hold a legendary status in Indonesia’s intellectual history and the latter served in senior economic portfolios under Suharto. Despite his impeccable economic and political pedigree, there is enough credible evidence of human rights violations against Prabowo both in Timor and on anti-Suharto activists in Jakarta on the eve of regime change that he is banned from entering the US.

Since being discharged from the army under a cloud, Prabowo has worked closely with his brother Hashim in a variety of businesses. Hashim is a highly successful businessman with links into the US political and business community. Hashim has recently made substantial donations to Republican thinktanks (the best known is the Sumitro Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, named after their father), which could in part see some whitewash of Prabowo’s image in the US. There is little doubt that if he were to be elected, the travel ban to the US would be immediately lifted.

In considering Indonesia-Australia relations, we need to take into account the likely election of one of these three men and how the Coalition policy of turning back or buying back asylum seeker boats might provide a fertile ground for an ultra-nationalist discourse in an election campaign in Indonesia.

Pitted against the Indonesian need to provide food for its burgeoning population, the whipping up of a mass protest by Australian Cabinet minister Barnaby Joyce to protect Australian agricultural land provides fertile ground for nationalist electioneering in Indonesia.

During the Australian election campaign, Indonesia’s Australia-literate Cabinet was able to distinguish between election rhetoric for domestic consumption and what the real policies of a new government might shape up to be.

But is it likely or even possible that the Abbott Cabinet will have similar depth of knowledge of Indonesia to navigate its way through the complexities of Indonesian domestic politics to distinguish between rhetoric and reality? It certainly does not have on its frontbench the kind of knowledge of Indonesia that the Indonesian government has of Australia.

However, it is to the great credit of the Abbott government that in broad terms it has recognised the deficit in Australia’s knowledge of and embedding in the Asia-Pacific region. Its New Colombo Plan aims to devise a long-term solution to this problem by supporting a generation of undergraduate students to experience Asia as a rite of passage.

But the immediate challenge of contradictions between the rhetoric of our recent election and the imminent Indonesian election campaign remains an impediment to improvement in the relationship in the short-term.

Watch this space.