Ross B. Taylor
For John Howard it was Tampa. More recently for our foreign minister, Julie Bishop, it was MH17 and the subsequent handling of the dispute with Russia. And so it will be, with Indonesia's new president Joko Widodo who, barely three months into his presidency, has been faced with the loss of over 162 people - mostly Indonesians - in the crash of an Air Asia aircraft last week whilst en-route to Singapore from the East Java capital of Surabaya.
When Mr Widodo (simply and affectionately known as ‘Jokowi’) was running for the presidency late last year, one of his strongest policy positions was that of the need for openness in government and decisive leadership. This was in stark contrast to the then incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who had developed a widely-held reputation within Indonesia for being hesitant and a lack-lustre president.
Yet despite Jokowi’s huge popularity with the 'twitter-set' including millions of young Indonesians, his suitability for such a demanding role as president of a sprawling nation of 240 million people was questioned: "He is only a puppet of Mega" (referring to his party's leader and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri), or, "He has no experience in international affairs".
And so last week Jokowi faced his first real test as a new president: This tragic crash of an Air Asia flight made headlines around the world as families demanded answers and action to recover what was left of this terrible incident.
Yet, whereas the Malaysian government's handling of the loss of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight somewhere off the WA coast was handled so ineptly, the Jokowi government has moved quickly and with openness and clarity in dealing with this latest aircraft tragedy.
President Widodo has co-ordinated search-and-rescue efforts, demanded a national review of air safety regulations and ensured relatives were kept fully informed of developments as they occurred. He has responded to questions from the international press with transparency and honesty. Notwithstanding the shocking impact upon the families of this loss, the president's actions have ensured a co-ordinated and professional response to an event that was being followed throughout the world.
Domestically, Jokowi has no formal links with the powerful ‘establishment’ within Indonesia, yet he has quickly set-about reforming the country’s economy starting with sorting-out the $20 billion a year subsidy on fuel; a sensitive issue that his predecessor carefully avoided at great cost to his country’s finances.
Jokowi’s actions as president demonstrate how, when making really tough decisions, if you have a ‘narrative’ as Paul Keating called it, and can openly and honestly tell the people why urgent action needs to be taken, you can often get your reforms implemented; despite having a ‘feral’ parliament that is not dis-similar to that which confronts Australia’s PM, Tony Abbott.
Three months for a new leader is a very short time in politics. But this gentle and quiet man has already begun to define himself in the minds of not only Indonesians, but also the region.
The Air Asia tragedy has only reinforced the perception of many that Jokowi may indeed be a leader that Indonesia needs in its ongoing transformation from a dictatorship into a modern, stable and dynamic democracy that is home to over 180 million Muslims who generally embrace religious tolerance and a pluralistic society.
He is probably a president that Indonesia’s regional neighbours also need; including Australia.