‘It’s not an innocent white powder,’ announced Prime Minister John Howard gravely a couple of weeks ago. ‘It’s some kind of biological agent. I’m not a scientist, but they say it belongs to the bacillus group.’
As was revealed next day, Howard was either making it up again or passing on inflammatory lies made up by others.
Thanks to John Ditchburn
And although the powder found in the Indonesian embassy in Canberra caused no harm, the truth overboard comments by John Howard – yet again – have certainly damaged relations between Australia and Indonesia.
This is consistent with the Howard Government’s handling of the recent Schapelle Corby matter and with most of its dealings with Indonesia.
Corby’s arrest, trial and conviction for drug importation have all transpired in an atmosphere of unprecedented suspicion and animosity between Australia and Indonesia. For this the Government must accept major responsibility.
The PM made it clear on gaining office that the Keating years of close ties with Indonesia were over. Our focus henceforward would be firmly on the United States and Britain.
Overseas aid to Indonesia was slashed by 17 per cent in the first Costello budget in 1996 from $129.9 million to $108 million. It was cut again the next year to $97.1 million at the depths of the South East Asian economic recession which brought poverty and starvation to millions of Indonesians.
When Pauline Hanson called for a return to anti-Asian policies, John Howard remained silent. He and his Government then quietly, gradually but effectively enacted six out of her seven principal demands.
In 1998 East Timor’s call for independence prompted the Australian Government to intervene directly in Indonesia’s affairs.
Foreign Minister Downer boasted in a speech to the Rotary Club of Sydney in November 1999 that ‘we pressed Indonesia to halt the violence that so tragically erupted in the territory, and when it was clear that the Indonesian security forces were unable to do so, Australia organised the INTERFET multinational force.’
The reality behind this hubris, however, was that Howard and Downer had engaged in some of the most inept and offensive ‘diplomacy’ in Australia’s foreign policy history. Ill-advised public statements together with the infamous letter of 19 December 1998 from Howard to President Habibie demanding autonomy for the East Timorese and the release of Xanana Gusmao are regarded now as significant triggers for the killings that preceded East Timor’s transition to independence.
Seasoned observers in Indonesia and elsewhere, including diplomats and journalists, expressed their dismay at these gratuitous insults to the Indonesians. They were not surprised at the consequent slaughter.
The outrage across Indonesia and beyond at Australia’s arrogance led to palpable hatred of the Australian Government and, by tragic extension, the Australian people. Most Australians working in Indonesia at that time (of which I was one) became all too aware of this ominous mood change.
Howard Government ministers then crudely blamed Indonesia for failing to stem people smugglers bringing illegal immigrants to Australia.
Of the asylum seekers who have managed to arrive from or via Indonesia, many have been locked indefinitely in our notorious detention centres. Illegal entrants from Britain or the USA by contrast are seldom if ever locked away.
In October 2002 a bomb destroyed a nightclub frequented by Australians and others at Bali’s Kuta beach. Among the 202 people killed were 88 Australians. Hundreds more were seriously injured.
In an even more direct expression of outrage against Australia a suicide bomber attacked the Australian embassy in Jakarta in September 2004 killing 10 and injuring more than 200.
Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer immediately lashed out at the Indonesian Police claiming they had received forewarning of the attack via a telephone text message but had not passed the information on.
Understandably, this caused profound dismay and deep offence to the Indonesian police, the Government and others.
Later, Downer admitted the error. There had been no intelligence by text. Another lie publicly broadcast. Downer explained lamely to the press that he had reported the rumour because he would have been criticised if he hadn’t.
Following the Boxing Day tsunami, the Australian Government announced a billion dollar aid package for Indonesia. This figure is still being widely quoted across the land. It is another lie. Half this total is a loan. The benefit this will bring to the poor of Indonesia is unclear. Whether servicing the loan will cause more cost than benefit remains uncertain. But, as always, the lender will definitely benefit.
The other $500 million is to be paid over several years and most of this had been allocated already under the pre-existing overseas aid program.
The guilty verdict handed to Schapelle Corby last month included condemnation of attempts at external meddling in the trial. This was interpreted as a reference to the Australian Government which had frequently offered gratuitous advice to the Corby defence team and the Indonesian judiciary.
Clearly, the Government has much to answer for in the parlous state of relations with our close neighbour.
And observers on both sides of the Timor Sea should now know that when the topic of conversation is Indonesia and Howard Government ministers’ lips are moving, they are probably lying.
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