DUNCAN GRAHAM. Troubled by truth telling in Indonesia

Nov 3, 2018

Does the present government really understand Indonesia? Or want to? Ministers get detailed briefings from diplomats in Jakarta squirreling away in our biggest embassy, plus wisdoms from academics close to home.

 So why so many big boo-boos, of which former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s trip as envoy to Bali is a standout.  Not so much the visit, more the wash-up.

The media next door are fully focused on yet another national tragedy.   After two earthquakes killing thousands, a new Boeing 737 Max 8 inexplicably crashed last month, killing all 189 on board.  So there’s been little space to ponder the latest weird policy meanderings in Canberra.

Had Lion Air flight JT610 not plunged into the Java Sea the issue of Australia possibly following the US and shifting its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could be threatening trade and friendship with the world’s most populous Islamic nation.

Foreign affairs is the highest of political arts, no place for dilettantes, the unlettered and intemperate. Consistency is a virtue, change must be managed.  It’s an area where Governments and Oppositions, even when disagreeing, tend to be less shrill.

Tongues which flex freely on domestic issues usually manage control on international matters; speaking with one voice dissuades foreign states seeking to denigrate and divide.

Though not Australia in its dealings with the world’s third largest democracy, a major market for our primary produce and future ally as China expands south and the US heads north.

The Palestine issue is to Indonesians what British royalty is to Australasians – a complex of deeply felt religious, cultural and historical emotions where the hard hats of reason offer little protection.

At first glance the idea of sending Citizen Turnbull to Bali for the Oceans Conference seemed reasonable.  Mr Harborside Mansion is said to hit it off with President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, raised on the mudbanks of Central Java’s Solo River.  The guys had met several times before, so a saving on name tags.

At second glance – not so smart. This was a head-of-state show with Widodo as host. If PM Scott Morrison was unavailable either Deputy Michael McCormack or Foreign Minister Marise Payne should have been first to shake hands when disembarking in Denpasar.

Whatever the barrister’s past eminence, having a delegation leader whose titles are all qualified with ‘former’ was at best a snub to Australian ministers, and certainly an insult to the protocol-obsessed Javanese who run the Republic and must have asked: Does he carry any clout?

This is a nation where spotters work 24/7 seeking slights to sovereignty, like birdwatchers vie for first sightings, then shriek outrage and demand retaliation.

But don’t worry – this stuff-up won’t happen again.  There’ll be no more papers in Mr T’s briefcase with a roo and emu on the letterhead. If he wants to wear batik on Paradise Island he’ll have to pay his own hotel bill.

His naughtiness?  He told the truth to reporters at the conference: ‘There is no question, were that move (the embassy to Jerusalem) to occur, it would be met with a very negative reaction in Indonesia.’

Didn’t anyone have the courage to tell the PM that the man he toppled was probably doing a nice diplomatic dance to move the issue close to an exit?  If they did, he wasn’t listening.

‘The issue of trade and other things was not really part of his (Turnbull’s) brief. My view, our government’s view about these issues are clear. That’s what we’re pursuing,’ he told commercial radio in Australia.

‘Not really’? ‘Issues are clear’? What was being pursued?  The past Member for Wentworth responded with  ‘a few facts’: ‘Scott Morrison asked me to discuss trade and the embassy issue in Bali and we had a call before I left to confirm his messages which I duly relayed to Mr Widodo.’

More truth telling required and all in public. This washing isn’t just dirty, it’s diseased.

A correction on Fairfax Media: ‘I invited Mr Turnbull to represent me … as head of delegation, he was briefed on appropriate responses on other issues that could be raised in any direct discussions with the President’.

Widodo must have wondered what platform the Okkers were standing on. Like trains switching tracks, policy change should be signaled ahead.  Who’s the real stationmaster here? Or is there one?

If Jakarta hadn’t been focused on the air crash this chaos could have led the TV bulletins, as crippling to relationships as the 2011 Labor Government’s abrupt ban on cattle exports when allegations of cruelty were made against Indonesian abattoirs.

The potential for damage still lurks.  Widodo’s opponents are led by Presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto. If they campaign on the Canberra confusion claiming Australia treats its friends with contempt and isn’t genuine about seeking a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the game will get worryingly weighty.

In this bleak scenario Widodo might chose to show electors he’s no push-around by teaching the Antipodean brats a lesson.

Least painful to him but hurtful to us would be delaying endorsement of the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement; this free trade deal is supposed to be wrapped before Christmas.

In such a troubling climate, seeds of hostility could find a damp paddock ahead of Indonesians voting next April.

To conclude – a respectful request:  Please, elected reps, think before speaking on issues concerning the neighbours.  Is that so hard?

Duncan Graham is a freelance Australian journalist living in Indonesia.




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