Abbott Stops The Boasts In Jakarta

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It’s a measure of the insular nature of the political conversation in this country that Australian journalists are often pleased, and indeed surprised, when our leaders perform adequately on the international stage.

And so it has proved with Tony Abbott’s first visit to Jakarta. The new Prime Minister came to the meeting with serious question marks hanging over his ability to navigate the international stage. For the time being, at least, he has assuaged those concerns, even if his media management tactics are again drawing fire.

Abbott went into the Jakarta summit under considerable pressure over he Coalition’s asylum seeker policies. The Indonesian government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had made clear its disquiet with some of the Coalition’s more bellicose rhetoric regarding refugee flows through the archipelago, and the towing back of boats carrying asylum seekers. As we canvassed here in detail a fortnight ago, Abbott and the Coalition were given a series of warnings by prominent Indonesian policy-makers about the risks of disregarding Indonesian sovereignty in the Coalition’s headlong rush to “stop the boats.” 

The warning signals from Jakarta included a string of critical statements from Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, culminating in the deliberate release of notes from a sensitive interview between Natalegawa and Julie Bishop in New York. The statement, which Jakarta later claimed was published by mistake, bluntly warns Australia that the boat tow-back policy was putting the relationship at risk. According to the statement, Natalegawa told Bishop quite plainly that “unilateral measures which are about to be taken by Australia are worrying … [and]risk close co-operation and trust which has been gained under the framework of Bali process and with that, should be avoided.”

So when Tony Abbott went in to closed session talks with Indonesia’s President, there must have been some nervous shuffling in the Prime Minister’s office. How would Abbott go in his first international negotiation? Could a strong stance on asylum seeker policy be squared with a resolute insistence on respect towards Indonesia?

As it turned out, and not for the first time in his tumultuous political career, Tony Abbott delivered a surprisingly assured performance. Abbott’s press conference on Monday was calm, even dignified, and the soothing noises he made were no doubt intended to placate criticisms that his overweening ambition had jeopardised Australia’s most important foreign relationship.

“There have been times when all sides of Australian politics should have said less and done more,” he declared, going on to promise that “the relationship will once more be one of no surprises, based on mutual trust, dependability and absolute respect for each other’s sovereignty under the Lombok Treaty.”

He struck a similarly conciliatory tone later in the media conference. “I do want to stress publicly, as well as privately Bapak President: Australia’s total respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia’s territorial integrity,” he said, addressing SBY.

Abbott appears to have walked back from his most belligerent rhetoric on asylum seekers, softening the language and committing to working together with Indonesia, rather than unilaterally. In return, he appears to have won some concessions from the SBY administration, including a commitment to bilateral talks on the issue.

Observers in both Australia and Indonesia expressed surprise at the positive outcome. Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the editor of the Jakarta Post, wrote in The Guardian that “the Indonesian people have also learnt they have nothing to dread from the new Australian leader, who showed appropriate tact during his visit.”

Many in Australia’s foreign policy community will be breathing a sigh of relief. As we’ve argued, the new government’s aggressive rhetoric on asylum seeker policy has been disquieting, even destabilising, to Australia’s critical relationship with Indonesia. But it seems as though this is one issue where the new government can recognise the facts on the ground and respond accordingly, rather than impose an ideological strait-jacket on its approach to inconvenient realities. In this respect, the Coalition’s quixotic plan to buy fishing boats off Javanese people smugglers may now be shelved.

Whether this will improve the troubling issue of asylum seeker deaths at sea remains to be seen. All the evidence suggests that tougher deterrence measures will not significantly stem the flow of desperate people seeking asylum on our shores. The evolving militarisation of Australia’s policy, complete with three-star generals and stage-managed weekly media briefings, is also a cause for real concern. Nonetheless, better cooperation between Australia and Indonesia on the issue is surely a welcome development, even if there is little that better cooperation can do to address the underlying foundations of the asylum seeker “problem”.

Speaking of stage-managed media events, the Abbott Government’s penchant for controlling the message has again got it into trouble. Indonesia’s media is fuming that local journalists were locked to of Tony Abbott’s media conference on Tuesday, a restriction on reporting that on the face of things appears to be in breach of Indonesian media law.

The Indonesian newspaper Rakyat Merdeka reported that the Australian embassy's media officer told local journalists they would not be allowed into the conference, saying “Sorry, this is the Prime Minister's Office request”. According to Fairfax’s Jakarta correspondent Michael Bachelard, Australian journalists were also told the press conference was only for them.

Indonesian journalists were understandably annoyed, as it meant they couldn’t ask any questions of the visiting Australian leader. According to the local journalists’ union, this might even amount to a breach of Indonesian media law. Umar Idris of the Alliance for Independent Journalists told Bachelard that “the press law in Indonesia says it is a crime to limit journalists to get access to information.”

As with so many cases of media displeasure, it seems unlikely that anything beyond momentary embarrassment will come of this.

The Prime Minister was back in Canberra yesterday, meeting with another neighboring leader, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. The two right-of-centre leaders appeared to find each other’s company congenial. Abbott’s statement on their meeting included reference to the coming APC summit, and an interesting remark that the two nations would be pursing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The ship of state sails ever onwards. For now at least, Captain Abbott is quite enjoying international waters.

Well he might. The news that the final results from the election have seen three Senators from the Palmer United Party elected might well give Abbott cause for quiet reflection. With Clive Palmer himself provisionally elected in the lower house, the PUP is in a position to cause all sorts of trouble for the Coalition’s legislative agenda. Abbott might find that he prefers negotiating with SBY and John Key to placating the mercurial populist from Queensland.  

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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