Abbott's Soundbite Diplomacy With Indonesia


We’ve been told to expect “More Jakarta and less Geneva” under a Coalition government, with both Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop pledging to recalibrate Australia’s foreign policy to prioritise Indonesia and the region.

But with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister last week declaring Indonesia would reject Abbott’s asylum seeker plan and “any other policy that harms the spirit of partnership,” the Coalition faces significant challenges in realising its election catchphrase.

If it is serious about fostering the bilateral relationship, the Coalition must recognise the connections between politically difficult issues such as asylum seekers, aid and the cattle trade for example — and their effect on broader issues such as trade, shared business interests and cross-cultural education.

Moreover, if it is to reorient Australia’s foreign policy to Indonesia and the region, the Coalition must urgently confront and counteract the stereotypes which it helped to foster in Opposition.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) stated in a 2010 speech to the Australian Parliament that “the most persistent problem in our relations in the persistence of age-old stereotypes” but despite his warning, little has been done to address them. 

A recent DFAT-commissioned report into Australian attitudes towards Indonesia found that nearly half respondents felt that Indonesia is “a threat to Australian national security.”

People smuggling and terrorism are the top two policy issues most troubling to Australians in relation to Indonesia, prompting concern in 85 per cent and 83 per cent of respondents respectively. Other issues of concern include the treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia (77 per cent) and the treatment of Australians in the Indonesian justice system (70 per cent).

Just 9 per cent of Australians believe that Indonesia has made a “strong effort” to do something about people smuggling.

Australians are much more likely to name the United States, China and the United Kingdom than Indonesia as countries of importance to the national interest.

The DFAT report identified a link between the learning of Indonesian language and more informed and positive attitudes to Indonesia, but here too the Coalition faces a challenge.

There has been ongoing decline (pdf) in the demand for Indonesian language learning in Australian schools and universities.

Only 15 universities in Australia offer Indonesian language as a major subject, with six universities having closed their Indonesian language programs since 2004.

This suggests Bishop’s vague plan for an internship program in the style of Menzies’ “Colombo Plan” is doomed to fail.

Research (pdf) indicates that the demand for Indonesian language learning is particularly vulnerable to “external influences” in comparison to other languages — that is, events in Indonesia, compounded by Australian community attitudes and mainstream media coverage of Indonesia, are affecting Indonesian language learning.

The Coalition’s overt characterisation of asylum seekers and Indonesian people smugglers collectively as a security threat is logically incompatible with its plans to boost foreign investment opportunities and promote trade liberalisation.

In the Jakarta Globe, Mahfudz Siddiq, the head of the Indonesian House of Representatives' foreign affairs commission, slammed the colonialist nature of the plan to pay Indonesian “wardens” to provide information to Australia and bounty payments for information leading to successful smuggling prosecutions: “Indonesia is not Australia’s colony whose people can be bought for another country’s interest.”

Professor Hikmahanto Juwana of the University of Indonesia told the ABC the proposal was offensive, demonstrated a lack of understanding of Indonesia and would sour relations.

It is difficult to reconcile such strong opposition from within Indonesia to the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy with its plans for collaborative economic and trade relations with the same partner.

The Coalition demonstrates similar contradictions in its approach to aid and economic development, with its stated aim being to transform Australia’s overseas development assistance program from “aid-donor-recipient relationships to sustainable economic partnerships”.

While the Coalition has yet to announce the detail of its aid cuts, it’s almost certain Australia’s assistance to Indonesia – which would have been worth an estimated $646.8 million in 2013-2014 – will be affected.

An editorial in the Jakarta Post has already highlighted the aid cuts as being “detrimental for education in Indonesia” and foreshadowing the “pessimistic future profile of Australia and Indonesia relations”. Australian aid currently provides a significant amount of technical and economic support in Indonesia, with education receiving the greatest single portion of Australia’s aid spending and education programs being identified as largely successful.

The Coalition’s aim to shift to “economic diplomacy” fails to recognise the significance of aid in underpinning economic relations. To improve trade and business relations between the two countries will require long-term strategic investment in fostering generations of Indonesia-literate Australians and vice-versa.

The contradictions of the Coalition’s policy approach to Indonesia point to a failure to adequately address deep-seated stereotypes or to consider the need for a genuinely collaborative approach to shared bilateral issues.

“More Jakarta and less Geneva” is a characteristically catchy soundbite but with Indonesia promising to reject Coalition policies and entrenched stereotypes threatening to stymie meaningful engagement, Australia’s new government must change tack.

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.