Our two ministers just passing by in Indonesia – got a mo?

Sep 13, 2021
indonesia flag
Indonesia's male population remains in the grip of a serious tobacco addiction. (Image: Unsplash)

Marise Payne and Peter Dutton’s Jakarta visit was flagged as an ‘exclusive’ in an AFR curtain-raiser implying a renaissance in relations between Australia and Indonesia. That expectation came to naught.

Ahead of the ministers’ arrival, two Centre for Policy Development (CPD) authors on this website and The Jakarta Post offered the passengers some well-meaning though politically unrealistic ideas: “The time is right to invest more into the relationship”. Correct, but as in any successful marriage, the process has to be continuous.

“The stakes are high”. Correct if referring to decaying understandings on either side of the Arafura Sea. But apart from the universal plague and ceaseless South China Sea disputes, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton saw no pressing issues other than the usual STDs – security, trade and defence. Proof came with their reports.

A few legally unenforceable MOUs were updated during the one full-day visit, but nothing substantial apart from Dutton flying a test balloon about RI troops training in Australia. The idea could well pop when human rights supporters take aim. Many are alarmed at the military’s heavy suppression of separatists in West Papua, a province closed to Western journalists.

Whoever dropped the story to the AFR forgot to provide an agenda or add this was a rest-and-refuel while heading to New Delhi, Seoul, Washington and New York for the important stuff. Instead, it gushed claims of a “warm personal relationship” between Payne and her counterpart Retno Marsudi.

If the alleged link between the ladies is commonplace there’d be no need for any rah-rah about their meeting, or for Dutton to claim the bond is “first-rate”.  It’s not, as successive Lowy surveys disclose.

Almost 21 months have passed since the last Australian ministers were in Indonesia. Then it was Payne with Dutton’s predecessor Linda Reynolds, and the location was Bali, not Smog City. Indonesians haven’t taken to Zoom – they need to eyeball and judge close-up.

The promotion masked the embarrassing reality behind the hi-and-goodbye: The Australian government takes the people next door, the country with more Muslims than anywhere else and the world’s third-largest democracy for granted.

That’s not only insulting – particularly to the protocol-obsessed Javanese – it’s also foolish. Whatever goodwill may be in the joint account, history shows it could all be withdrawn with one misjudged action or crass comment.

Melbourne academics Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae have written: “There are no two neighbouring countries anywhere in the world that are more different than Indonesia and Australia. They differ hugely in religion, language, culture, history, geography, race, economics, worldview and population (Indonesia, 270 million, Australia less than 10 per cent of that).

“In fact, Indonesia and Australia have almost nothing in common other than the accident of geographic proximity. This makes their relationship turbulent, volatile and often unpredictable.”

If anyone in Canberra had noted this gritty assessment there’d be so many regular get-togethers we’d know Indonesians almost as well as Americans.

For all the misgivings it would be wrong not to recognise the importance of the Payne and Dutton visit. The AFR ran comments from experts welcoming the ministers’ “overdue” trip and noting a lack of confabs means “Australia risks declining strategic access, influence and relevance”.

The pandemic has been a useful excuse to keep ministers away from the Big Durian, but that hasn’t stopped VIPs visiting the US, Japan, the UK and other countries where Covid threatens as much as it does in the archipelago.

The CPD suggestion that Afghan refugees in Indonesia should be accepted by Australia is morally right – though doomed for base domestic reasons. Australia has banned asylum seekers registered in Indonesia after July 2014 from ever resettling Down Under.

Reversing this ignoble policy would be politically risky; there’ll be an election next year and the 20th anniversary of the Bali bombing to remind voters of extremism in Indonesia.

Indonesia isn’t party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees so leaves its 14,000 unwelcome guests to the UNHCR. Integration of the Afghans would take a leader of courage, but President Joko Widodo is no Angela Merkel. Nor is Scott Morrison.

In 2015 the German president defied doomsayers and pushed her country to keep its borders open. The Republic now leads the European Union in taking applications for asylum seekers.

The idea of Canberra and Jakarta working to tackle the Myanmar coup is also meritorious but looking to next year’s Bali Process meeting for solutions is a mite optimistic. The informal, non-binding forum has a poor record, as the CPD’s CEO Travers McLeod knows well. After hundreds of asylum seekers drowned in 2015, he co-authored a paper on the tragedy focusing on the agency’s ineffectiveness.

What might make the improvements the CPD seeks is to dilute the domestic anxieties which drive foreign policies. Surveys in both countries reveal public ignorance, indifference and distrust as neither bothers to seriously tackle the negative perceptions and superficial media.

ABC Australia, a television service which is supposed to be our showcase in Indonesia and elsewhere, is an under-funded, uncoordinated and embarrassing mishmash of parochialism. Al Jazeera is not threatened.

As widely reported, our universities have just about abandoned teaching Indonesian language and studies. This could be reversed if Payne pushed hard enough.

Sadly these serious concerns were not among her talking points. If her 40-minute online speech reflected the closed-door meetings, it wasn’t worth the hype. The opportunities and urgency seen by others were invisible to the minister.

The senator reminded all of Australia’s help in combating Covid – we gave 1 million doses to a nation of 273 million – but found no time to address the CPD’s submission, substituting an obfuscation of clichés. Playing fields – always level – got guernseys, but refugees were sidelined.

Indonesians wanting a road map to a real relationship will have to seek other ways. Useless waiting 21 months only to get another circular tour.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham writes from lockdown in East Java. 

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