How Will Indonesia Take Cosgrove?

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It was the worst kept secret in Canberra: Peter Cosgrove has been announced as Australia's next Governor-General.

Actually, “secret” is altogether the wrong word for this long-running campaign of backgrounding, in which rumours were circulating even before the Coalition won office. After Christmas, the whispers amplified. Michelle Grattan had an analysis in The Conversation yesterday, even before the announcement.

By this morning, the ABC was running the story as a fait accompli: Latika Bourke’s article today is headlined “Peter Cosgrove expected to be announced as next governor general.”

In her article, Grattan provides the government view in favour of Cosgrove for GG. “Abbott sees in Cosgrove someone with support across the political spectrum and public appeal,” she writes. Cosgrove is seen as “particularly appropriate as the nation heads into four years of commemorating the centenary of World War 1 and, in 2015, Gallipoli.”

There’s no doubt that 2014 and 2015 will be an unusually busy time for military ceremonies. The hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War will kick off an orgy of wreath laying that will culminate in an elaborate media circus next year on the foreshore at Anzac Cove.

A widely respected figure who also comes across as humble and down to earth, Cosgrove will be a safe pair of hands when it comes to war memorials and veteran’s functions. Nor is there any indication he will prove himself a dangerous activist in the titular role as Australia’s head of state.

But matters may get a little complicated if and when Cosgrove represents Australia in our region. While history is littered with military figures in the vice-regal position, Cosgrove’s particular role as the leader of Australia’ most regionally sensitive recent military action makes him a potentially risky choice.

Cosgrove is of course best known as the general in charge of the East Timor intervention of 1999. It doesn't require much of a history lesson to recall the hugely controversial nature of Australia’s East Timor intervention. Indonesia’s brutal record of massacres and repression in the former 27th province of the Republic is well documented.

When self-determination finally arrived, pro-Indonesian militias laid waste to much of the country in a campaign of violence and property destruction. While the transitional administration was in fact a United Nations operation, Australia provided the largest contingent of troops. Australia’s prominent role in the intervention marked a low point in relations between Canberra and Jakarta.

It’s a low point we might be returning to, given the rocky current state of the Australian-Indonesian relationship. Although matters have been improving since 1999, the four months since the election of the Abbott government have seen a steady deterioration, with crises erupting over revelations Australian intelligence had tapped the phone of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as well as ongoing tension over the Coalition’s aggressive asylum seeker boat interceptions.

The question therefore needs to be asked: how will Jakarta respond to a Cosgrove appointment? In an article on the ABC website, John Menadue argues that Cosgrove could indeed be a further provocation. “Discretion suggests that the Abbott Government should not worsen the situation by appointing a former military opponent of Indonesia as our next governor general,” he writes.

Time will tell, but it needn't be all bad. As a general, Cosgrove proved himself an adroit diplomat during the INTERFET operation, playing a cool hand during several provocations and flash points. As Governor-General, he may be able to employ some of that skill to smooth troubled waters.

However, personal diplomacy can only take you so far. Cosgrove is not in charge of Australia’s foreign policy; Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop are, with a healthy dose of Scott Morrison for good measure. Therein lies the problem.

You could argue that Morrison is actually the key driver in the Indonesian relationship at the moment. With his reckless determination to stop the boats, whatever the cost, Morrison has militarised the previously civilian role of border protection. A special forces commander was put in charge of the operations, which were then wrapped in a cloak of secrecy.

While asylum seeker boats have gradually dwindled, there have been plenty of blunders and mistakes. It could be argued that “inadvertent incursions” into Indonesian territory by the Navy while on asylum seeker patrol are the direct result of a more militarily aggressive policy.

It’s not as though Indonesia hasn’t warned us about its sensitivities. Even before the election, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa issued a number of statements expressing his government’s unhappiness with the tow-back policy. Abbott and Morrison have ploughed ahead, regardless. To make matters worse, Indonesia is now ramping up for national elections, in which anti-Australia rhetoric is likely to feature prominently.

In a perceptive article recently published on the Lowy Interpreter, Gary Hogan argues that Australian-Indonesian relations are cyclical, “with the relationship oscillating over peaks and into troughs about every decade.” Hogan thinks we were due for a cooling of the relationship in any event, but that recent events have made matters worse.

The spying scandal has obviously been a sore point, particularly given SBY has invested a lot of political capital in improving Indonesia’s relationship with Australia.

“But the most alarming manifestation of Indonesian reaction to the Snowden leaks,” Hogan writes, “has been a stridently dismissive characterisation of relations with Australia by some members of the Jakarta elite and commentariat.”

“The received wisdom that Indonesia is a future economic powerhouse makes for a heady brew and some observers in Jakarta appear drunk on it, downplaying the relative importance of the bilateral relationship.”

Hogan argues that the enduring facts of geography and economics in our region mean that Australia and Indonesia will eventually realise the wisdom of mending fences. Let’s hope he’s right.

In the meantime, wisdom seems in rather short supply, particularly in Canberra, where the Coalition’s strange fixation on winning long-dead culture wars seems to be one of the Abbott government’s main priorities. If politicians in both countries continue to put short-term political gain ahead of their longer-term responsibilities, the Australian-Indonesian relationship could deteriorate further.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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