This headline stunned not only many Australians but also added fuel-to-the- fire of anti-Australian sentiment that now prevails throughout Indonesia. Are we seriously saying to Indonesia that we will cover their costs of keeping Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in jail for the next forty or fifty years if Indonesia will spare their lives? Are we seriously suggesting to President Joko that we feel the only reason why he has rejected their clemency pleas is to save money?
The almost irrational comments from Australia’s foreign minister follows equally irrational comments last week by a senior Indonesian minister that, "...a tsunami of 10,000 asylum seekers could be unleashed on Australia" in revenge for complaints about the executions of the Bali Nine duo.
Co-ordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, was quoted on Indonesia’s Metro TV as saying he would release thousands of asylum seekers if Australia continued to upset Indonesia by interfering in his country’s internal affairs. His comments come shortly after a senior agriculture official, Director-General, Syukar Iwantoro, 'dared' Australia to ban the export of cattle to Indonesia as retribution for the execution of the these two men.
All of these comments should be seen as 'silly' and unhelpful in the current highly emotional environment, but they also represent a dangerous escalation of the war of words between senior officials from both countries.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott certainly can be blamed for taking this issue from one about two Australian drug smugglers on death row, to one of Indonesian sovereignty and nationalism, following his recent Tsunami Aid for Aceh comments, but the Indonesian response has also been excessively reactionary and inflammatory.
The Koin- for-Australia campaign has further galvanized opinion in Indonesia about standing-up to foreign countries which are perceived to be bullying Indonesia on matters of their independence and sovereignty. This campaign - albeit quite clever - has been run by what many would call 'feral' groups who want nothing more than to cause trouble and destabilise relations between our two countries, and they have used social media very effectively.
Meanwhile, the handling of the planned execution of Sukumaran and Chan by Indonesian officials has become a debacle and is quite rightly being now seen internationally as cruel and insensitive as we see yet another delay and change-of-plans.
Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo leads a new government that is under much stress with numerous ministers appearing inexperienced and naïve, whilst the president himself seems either disinterested in foreign matters (as was originally predicted by many commentators) or oblivious to the ramifications of bad and disorganised foreign policy on the run.
The first thing President Joko needs to do is to stop every minister and senior public servant throwing in their 'two bobs' worth about the execution issue and openly criticising Australia’s response to the unfolding events. Yet he does nothing, further hardening the opinion that he is indeed a very weak and ineffective leader, despite his outwardly tough stance on the death penalty issue.
A number of national ministers, who have a strong allegiance with a former president, and Jokowi’s party leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, appear to feel they can say what they want, irrespective of the implications it may have in terms of the bi-lateral relationship. Fortunately, the voice of the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema is one of reason and wisdom. He needs to be listened to with far more respect by his Jakarta-base colleagues.
Likewise here in Australia, a far more measured response to the proposed executions is critical to avoid ‘feeding’ the now very strong nationalistic furore engulfing our northern neighbour.
So as this terrible execution story unfolds ever so slowly, the question needs to be asked: How bad can things get between our two countries? Regrettably, there appears a very strong likelihood that things may get a whole lot worse, and if these two Australian men are indeed executed in the next week or so, the relationship between our two countries may be considerably worse than during the East Timor crisis.
The implications of what is now playing out are significant. Only last week the highly respect defence expert, Professor Alan Dupont, urged Australia and Indonesia to ‘foster closer strategic partnerships in defence’ as we witness the rise-and-rise of China in the region and the US response to that expansion. Of course, Dupont is right but how do we achieve that critical objective when our two leaders don’t even talk to each other?
People smuggling, terrorism, business and trade opportunities are further reasons that demand close relations between Indonesia and Australia.
The next few weeks will determine the relationship between Australia and Indonesia for quite some time. What both sides need right now is cool heads in the knowledge that at many levels, we still enjoy many very deep and enduring connections with our friends in Indonesia.
What we are getting currently though – from both sides - is a rabble of fuzzy and irrational heads inflaming what is already a very fragile issue with ill-considered statements that are designed to appeal to domestic audiences whilst at considerable cost to the region’s stability and progress.
All parties must tread with great care. Much is now at stake; and much more than just our precious Bali holidays.
Ross B. Taylor AM