What Indonesia expects from Australia’s new Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen after the swearing-in ceremony for his ministry at Government House in Canberra on Tuesday. Lukas Coch/AAP

What Indonesia expects from Australia’s new Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, will visit Indonesia on Friday on his first overseas trip just a week after being sworn in.

During the visit, Morrison is scheduled to meet President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to announce a free trade agreement and discuss security cooperation between the two countries.

But, how much do Indonesians know about Morrison? How will his leadership affect the bilateral relations between Indonesia and Australia? What do Indonesians expect from Morrison?

Media exposure

Morrison’s sudden appointment after a stunning party revolt against his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull has attracted Indonesian media attention. I noticed this after monitoring both online and print media in Indonesia. Among them are the country’s largest daily, Kompas, Indonesia’s leading English newspaper, The Jakarta Post and prominent online media, including Detik,Okezone and Kumparan.

Local media’s coverage of Morrison’s appointment signals increased public awareness of Australian politics. The exposure is even bigger both in quantity and frequency than Indonesian media coverage of the 2016 Australia federal election.

Indonesian media describe the quick change in the leadership as a common phenomenon in Australian politics. They say this will result in more unnecessary delays for bilateral agreements between the two countries.

Knowing Morrison

Indonesians are more familiar with Australian leaders like Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Morrison’s name only came up after he was elected as the prime minister.

Not all Indonesians are aware that Morrison’s nomination was a result of an internal political instability within Australia’s Liberal Party.

From his portfolio, Indonesians know that Morrison is the man behind Australia’s immigration policy, “stop the boats”. Issued during Morrison’s time as immigration minister, the policy is a border protection operation to stop arrivals of asylum seekers to Australia.

The Indonesian government has always expressed its objection to the policy. It believes Australia should not act unilaterally and pursue a more sustainable approach to asylum seekers.

He is also known as a leader that supported anti-Islam policies to win votes.

Despite views that he may be seen as unfriendly to Islam, Morrison has the opportunity to start a new episode with Indonesia. So far the local media has only focused on his immigration policy.

What to expect

Morrison’s visit to Jakarta is an effective symbol to show how important Indonesia is to Australia.

Despite being geographically close, Australia was only the 12th biggest buyer of Indonesian exports in 2016-2017. Meanwhile, Indonesia was the tenth largest export destination for Australia.

During his visit to Jakarta, Morrison is expected to announce the free trade pact between Australia and Indonesia, despite some doubtful predictions. The deal is known as the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA CEPA).

IA-CEPA itself has been going through a long, slow, and exhausting negotiation. This is because Australia is demanding to sign a good deal to maximise its economic benefits.

During the negotiation, Australia wanted a majority of ownership for Australian universities when they open campus in Indonesia. Initially, Indonesia only allowed Australian universities to have 41% of ownership. Both countries finally agreed on 67% of ownership.

Australia also wants full market liberalisation on health and agricultural sectors, to which Indonesia has existing regulations to comply. In July 2018, the twelfth round of the negotiation still dealt with minor deadlocks in selected working groups, possibly causing further delays.

It is important to note that Australia has signed trade agreements that do not necessarily give economic benefits to the country. It believes these agreements are a tool of foreign policy. This approach exists in a number of Australia’s free trade agreements, including with Korea, Japan and the United States.

Because of its trade agreements with other countries, Australia should have not always made economic benefits a priority in IA-CEPA negotiations. The IA-CEPA should go beyond tariff liberalisation, trade mechanism and other technical measurements. Instead, it also should involve the role of civil society and consider strategic aspects of the agreement.

With regard to Australia’s immigration policy, the Indonesian public has raised concern that Morrison’s leadership may bring back the “turn back the boat” policy.

However, we hope Morrison would not include his hard-line policy as part of his priorities in handling relations with Indonesia.

Australia should go beyond boats. Solutions for asylum seekers should be formulated on the basis of mutual benefits. Intensive regional forums are pivotal to provide a long-term way out.

Indeed, using the immigration issue and treating it as a threat is very much helpful in boosting popularity in every Australian election. However, Morrison should be aware that Indonesia considers this policy unhelpful in achieving broader regional stability.

High expectations ahead

Despite the volatility in Australian federal politics, bilateral relations between Australia and Indonesian remain intact.

Throughout much of its history, Indonesia and Australia have enjoyed strong and strategic relations. We have encountered a number of challenges that put us in conflict. However, the two countries share common goal of regional stability.

Yet, the Australian federal political instability coincides with the changing nature of the two countries’ relations.

Indonesia-Australia relations is shifting to a stronger people-to-people connection.

An example of this kind people-to-people diplomacy is the opening of several Australian corners in Indonesia’s leading universities. These corners allow students to understand more about Australian culture, politics, and government.

Under its New Colombo Plan, Australia has put Indonesia as its first destination for Australian university students. The program enables young Australians to interact more with Indonesians.

However, at the same time, a series of leadership sagas in Canberra have not always ended with a leader who is ready to build an image of Australia as a good middle power in the region.

The political instability is Australia has forced its politicians to focus more on winning the upcoming election. Domestic issues and politics may restrain it from implementing a “sober and realistic” foreign policy. This is the reason why former prime minister Tony Abbott failed to keep his promise to implement “More Jakarta Less Geneva” policy. To make it even worse, Abbott even refused to apologise over the Indonesian spy scandal.

Morrison should continue to build stronger relations with Indonesia. Given his background as a managing director of Tourism Australia from 2004 to 2006, Morrison has the qualification to develop a more attractive and interesting Indonesia-Australia relations in the near future. Concluding the IA-CEPA negotiation and discussing a more sustainable approach to asylum seekers, are some of strategies to consider.

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