Subject: New Matilda: Australia Federal Election - View from Indonesia

Also Straits Times: Australian Labor Party to work on firm ties with Asia

New Matilda

Federal Election: View from Indonesia

By: Jennifer Bennett

Tuesday 20 November 2007

It would be nice to imagine that the Indonesian media pays as much attention to us as we do to them. There are at least nine Australian journalists permanently based here, representing Fairfax, News Ltd, the ABC and AAP. All regularly run stories on Indonesia, some of which deeply involve Australia, but many of which simply detail the ongoing struggles of a country dealing with a young democracy, environmental and social problems, terrorism and corruption. The last Indonesian election was covered in fair detail by the Australian press, and even the recent direct gubernatorial election in Jakarta (a first for the capital) got some airtime.

But there’s been little discussion of the coming Australian election in the Indonesian press. Partly for budgetary reasons, few Indonesian media companies keep on full-time correspondents in Australia, aside from Antara, the national news agency. Major broadsheet Kompas (the Indonesian-language big brother of The Jakarta Post) has not had a correspondent for some time. Most papers, the Post included, rely on wire copy or the occasional freelance piece from Indonesians abroad (inevitably, it seems, post-graduate students desperate to show off their new knowledge), which usually come in the form of op-eds discussing problems in Indonesia, not reportage or opinion on events overseas.

Of course, Indonesia is a country with its own problems ­ the average page seven story in the Post would be front-page, banner-headline news in Australia if it happened in Sydney rather than Jakarta. And while Australians may fear the sprawling country to their north, believing it to be filled with mad terrorists and corrupt dictators, Indonesians are generally rather more sanguine about the land to the south ­ although they wish it would stop meddling in their affairs (invading East Timor did not win us any friends here, nor did letting in those 42 Papuan refugees last year) and are certainly not above getting involved in a good old diplomatic fight.

After witnessing the rising hysterics in both countries over the refugees and the two cartoons that followed, as well as the row earlier this year over then Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso’s enraged flight from Sydney following a botched attempt to serve him with a summons over the deaths of the Balibo Five, I am convinced that Australia and Indonesia have some of the most entertaining diplomatic arguments in the world.


Image thanks to <>Fiona Katauskas.

It is worth noting that most of the ‘protesters‘ seen outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in the wake of the Sutiyoso row were widely believed to have been paid to attend, given they were all members of an association connected to Sutiyoso and magically appeared almost as soon as he had arrived back in town. Hardly a show of national rage. People were insulted, certainly, but the Post’s editorial made it clear that while it was not pleased at the way Sutiyoso was treated, Indonesia should expect more of this sort of thing given the history of the Indonesian Military.

Indonesians are not on the whole particularly concerned that Australia is about to invade, break up, be taken over by a dictator, become a fundamentalist religious State (all anxieties about Indonesia that have been aired in Australia) or even demand that Papua become independent.

And Howard is reasonably well liked here. He’s regarded as having a good relationship with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and as having helped Indonesia, so even while comments that Australia would consider ’pre-emptive strikes‘ should a threat arise and the intervention in East Timor soured relations, events have conspired to fix them.

Endy Bayuni, Chief Editor of The Jakarta Post, explained this ambivalence to me a few days ago:

Whoever is elected, we have to accept it. Both have pluses and minuses. With John Howard, he has already established a rapport with SBY… They have a relationship that guarantees relations between Indonesia and Australia will not get out of control. There will always be problems ­ it’s a love/hate relationship ­ but it’s improved a lot over the last 10 years.

He suggests that disasters such as the tsunami, the Seahawk helicopter crash in Nias and the Bali bombings have brought the countries together. The large amount of aid given to Indonesia by Australia in the wake of the 2004 tsunami certainly resulted in a fair amount of goodwill, and the coordinated response to the Bali bombings ­ both immediately in the form of emergency services, and later help on the terrorism front in general ­ have seen better relations develop at a deeper level across Indonesia. Indonesian and Australian police now train alongside each other, and I’ve heard more than one Indonesian police officer express admiration for Mick Keelty.

Bayuni also takes a rather surprisingly relaxed view of Howard’s campaign methods:

We understand the dynamics of Australian politics and sometimes Howard uses foreign issues to win elections, like the boat people a few years ago. At the time, many people here were angry he was using this and the threat of Islamic radicalism, with it implicitly coming from Indonesia, to gain popularity. But now we know when he addresses a domestic audience he needs to win and uses these things, I think we forgive him. What counts is his foreign policy.

The Post’s <>editorial on 15 November was a little less supportive, however, noting that:

Indonesia traditionally has stronger relations with Australia when its Federal Labor Party is in power. In this context, it is understandable many Indonesians hope the Labor Party’s leader Kevin Rudd will take out Australia’s election last week. When Paul Keating was in power and Soeharto controlled this country, our bilateral relations with Australia were probably at their peak.

And it ends with a knife in the back:

Howard is an old friend of Indonesia, but perhaps we need Rudd as a new friend. Who knows – maybe we can build a better future with a new friend?

About the author:

Jennifer Bennett lives in Jakarta and is a subeditor at The Jakarta Post. 


The Straits Times (Singapore) Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Australian Labor Party to work on firm ties with Asia

Bruce Gale, Senior Writer

IF THE opinion polls are right, Australia's general election on Saturday is likely to witness the defeat of the conservative Liberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard.

Will this lead to any important changes in Australian foreign policy? Most observers outside the country would probably argue that it will not. After all, the government and opposition centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) are both agreed on the importance of retaining the American alliance as a fundamental pillar of foreign policy.

For all the rhetoric regarding the need for 'closer engagement with Asia', the political consensus within Australia is that the country's 'Near North' - a term coined by Australian politicians and academics as a substitute for the 'Far East' - will remain an area of instability for some time. And for all the treaties that Canberra makes with the governments of South-east Asian states, the only country Australia can really depend upon for assistance in time of need is the United States.

This attitude about South-east Asia is probably mutual. Many Asians are confused when Australians, seeking to change this dependency mindset, assert that Australia is a part of Asia. To Asians, the distinction between Asia and the West is cultural rather than geographic, and on this score Australia - despite its growing Asian population and commitment to multiculturalism - remains firmly in the Western camp.

But while the perceived need for a great protector remains entrenched in the Australian psyche, this does not mean there is no difference at all between the major political parties on how foreign policy should be conducted.

The ALP has been out of power for 11 years, so it is difficult to predict exactly the foreign policies likely to be favoured by a Labor government. Even so, a few general observations can be made. One of the most important of these is that the ALP's support for the US alliance has always been tempered by a greater attention to Australian interests and a more independent view of the implications of US foreign policy.

While in opposition, the ALP opposed Australian involvement in the Vietnam War and disapproved of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But while the party has factions known to be strongly critical of the US, Labor itself has never been anti-American. ALP leaders have always supported the presence of the ultra-secret US research and intelligence installations at Pine Gap and North West Cape, for example. They also supported US efforts to force Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.

When in power, ALP governments have tended to focus more than their conservative political opponents on developing strong ties with Asian nations. It was a Labor government under Mr Ben Chifley, for example, that controversially supported Indonesian independence in 1945. And it was the Labor government of Mr Paul Keating that signed the first security treaty with Indonesia in 1995.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd's experience as a diplomat (1981 to 1988) suggests that he will take a much greater interest in foreign affairs as prime minister than Mr Howard. His ability to speak fluent Chinese also suggests that he will follow ALP tradition by focusing on developing Australia's relations with Asia, and China in particular.

Other aspects of Mr Rudd's background support this impression. During the 1990s, when he was a senior bureaucrat in Queensland, Mr Rudd helped promote an Asian languages and cultures education programme that was ultimately accepted by the state governments. He later outlined the strategy in a working group study that became known as 'the Rudd Report'.

All this suggests that a Rudd government will promote a revival of Asian studies in Australian schools and universities.

As shadow minister for foreign affairs, Mr Rudd approved of the deployment of Australian troops in support of the US invasion of Afghanistan. But he criticised the US invasion of Iraq and has since argued for the withdrawal of Australian combat troops and their replacement with trainers for local forces.

But some aspects of Labor's foreign policy still remain vague.

At the official launch of Labor's election campaign in Brisbane on Nov 14, Mr Rudd said he wanted Australia to 'be a leader in the global fight against poverty, disease and underdevelopment, starting right here in our own region'. But he did not elaborate on how this would be done.

An ALP government under Mr Rudd would almost certainly continue - and possibly strengthen - what is now a bipartisan effort to maintain good ties with Indonesia. This will not be easy, however, given Jakarta's checkered record on human rights and the depressing regularity with which young Australians on holiday in Indonesia tend to get involved in drug trafficking.

The ruling by a Sydney coroner last week that Indonesian soldiers were directly responsible for the deaths of five Australian television journalists during Jakarta's invasion of then East Timor in 1975 is an extra complication.

Meanwhile, the desire to maintain good relations with China is likely to prompt Mr Rudd to counsel strongly against a possible US attack on North Korea. And despite its support for the US alliance, a Labor government would also be more reluctant than a Liberal-National government to send military forces to back the US in some future conflict with China over Taiwanese independence.

In sum, Australia under a Labor government will probably seek to act more like an independent ally than a US satellite or vassal state. Whether Asians recognise the difference is another matter entirely. As prime minister, Mr Rudd will almost certainly be hoping that they will.

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