The Boy Next Door


Within weeks of winning office, he was in Bali for the UN Climate Change Conference, which was nice, and a chance for him to have a chat with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but hardly an opportunity for any official glad handling. Then he went on his international jaunt, which the Opposition first derided for being too long, and then for not taking in enough countries – specifically, for skipping Japan and Indonesia.

Perhaps he knew that these would be the trickiest two. There’s Japan’s determination to carry on its experiments into just how many whales can be killed in one summer, and then there’s Indonesia, which presents a fantastic grab-bag of problems – what to argue about first? If Australia and Indonesia lived in terraces in inner-city Sydney, you can guarantee there’d be endless rows over missing garbage bins, loud parties, overhanging trees and whether or not the renovations had been approved by council.

Instead, it seems Rudd’s first meeting with Yudhoyono was a motherhood statement mission with one or two upsets. It’s telling that a large amount of the coverage of the meeting revolved around two things: A translation error and Rudd’s ignorance of one of the biggest current news stories in Indonesia.

Much fuss has been made over the "mistranslation"
of Yudhoyono’s comments about Australia’s travel warning for Indonesia, after a substitute translator added the words "And I look forward to when the advisory would be lifted" to Yudhoyono’s statement that the security situation in Indonesia had improved.

Australian expats in Indonesia receive a steady stream of mildly hysterical emails from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, warning that the department continues to "receive reports indicating that terrorists are planning attacks against a range of targets, including Western interests and places frequented by foreigners" and that anyone worrying for their safety should consider leaving. This despite no attacks since October 2004.

But that warning is unlikely to be dropped any time soon, given that the same department allegedly ignored warnings from the FBI that al-Qaeda related groups were looking at "soft targets" in the area. They wouldn’t want to get caught out again.

Tourist numbers are up in Bali in any case. More likely to do damage to the number of Australians tanning and shopping in Bali in the next few years is the execution of the members of the Bali Nine who are on death row, should that come to pass. This is a topic that was not mentioned at the meeting.

So what did come up? Let’s see. The ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and an Asia Pacific bloc that will contain ASEAN and APEC, bringing more red-tape to Indonesia, a country that already has people who are employed purely to put stamps on documents.

A bilateral initiative to reduce deforestation. A nice idea, but inevitably the sort of thing that makes one wonder how it would ever get off the ground. Presumably Australia will discourage Indonesians from mowing down their forests to plant palm oil for biofuels and burning down the rest to plant crops? That Rudd and Yudhoyono signed an agreement is heartening, certainly, but the details will be telling.

One concrete promise was to invest $62 million over the next three years to encourage Australians to study Asian languages, and presumably not just Mandarin.

However, Rudd’s desire to have Australia become "the most Asia-literate country in the western world" was somewhat undermined by the fact that he apparently managed to arrive in Jakarta not just unaware that there is an increasingly nasty row brewing over religious freedom, and that the Ahmadiyah sect has been threatened with being banned, but that he arrived completely unaware of the existence of Ahmadiyah. This despite the drama dominating the Indonesian media for a month, and making it to the Australian newspapers.

The PM is presumably a busy man, but surely someone is in charge of writing country briefs for him to read before he arrives? Not least about a problem that should it reach its worst possible conclusion – the outright banning of the sect – will quite likely result in the arrival on our shores of refugees.

Rudd hopefully remembers how snotty the Indonesians got a few years ago when 45 Papuans were given refugee status on arriving on Cape York. One could reasonably expect the same response in this instance – proving that neighbours will always find something to argue about.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.