By Ross B. Taylor AM
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has calculated that despite the anger and complaints from Indonesia, his ‘no comment’ line on the allegations that Australia paid-off people smugglers will not cost him any votes, and may actually increase the popular perception that Australia will continue to be tough on issues surrounding our borders and sovereignty under his leadership. He is probably right.
Many Australians simply want the boats to remain ‘stopped’, and that our government should do whatever it takes to ensure our borders are protected. People appear to also embrace the position that by hook or by crook - meaning the achievement of a particular goal or objective irrespective of any moral consideration - the PM will do what is in Australia’s best interest, even if this upsets our neighbours.
Meanwhile, under the presidency of Joko (Jokowi) Widodo, Indonesia appears ambivalent about Australia as they focus on building closer relationships, and business and trade links, with Asian countries to its north. The very conservative Jokowi is about as Javanese – gracious but with long memories - as Mr Abbott is a shirt-fronting Anglo Saxon, so the opportunity for building genuinely warm relations between these two leaders appears limited for now, particularly as Jokowi battles for his own survival against an astute and foreboding opposition leader, Subianto Probowo, an unsupportive legislature, and an even more unsupportive leadership within his own PDI-P party.
It is therefore not surprising that the Abbott Government appears resigned to letting the bi-lateral relationship just ‘bumble along’ for now, whilst building a strong domestic case that this government is all about keeping Australians safe.
We should not be in any doubt that the turn-back-the- boats policy has worked for Australia. It has saved lives, and it has also assisted Indonesia in stemming the inflow of Middle Eastern asylum seekers who were using Indonesia as a transit point to Australia. Mr Abbott is right to remind Australians, and Indonesia, of the benefits of his policy.
Whether Australia did bribe people smugglers to return to Indonesia may never be known, just as the claims that Indonesian local police (many of whom earn around $50.00 per week) were paid-off by the same criminals, to assist with the initial passage of these asylum seekers from remote parts of Indonesia, can never be proven.
What the PM needs to be more careful about however, is reinforcing the position that in the case of Australia’s sovereignty, he will do whatever it takes to act in the interests of only our own nation, even if this is unhelpful or unacceptable to our regional neighbours.
Whilst this may appeal to many Australians, such a high profile position invites our regional neighbours to do the same. President Jokowi did in fact apply the same principles; that of executing other smugglers in order to protect his nation’s 95 million young people from the scourge of illicit drugs. Despite the (justifiable) cries and outrage that this decision caused in Australia, the president enforced his policy and ignored the views of his neighbour.
The question then becomes, were both leaders simply acting in their own sole interest and that of their own nations on these two issues, whilst completely discounting the wishes and concerns of each other as they sought to appeal to their respective domestic audience?
As China continues to expand its influence in the region; ISIS builds and imposes its values and objectives in countries such as Indonesia, and as the threat of terrorism raises its ugly head once again, it is clear that we need close co-operation, understanding and a cohesive regional framework within ASEAN.
Indonesia will soon have an annual GDP greater than Australia for the first time, and a population exceeding 300 million within ten years. To treat the bi-lateral relationship lightly would represent a major error of judgement; both Mr Abbott and foreign minister Julie Bishop are fully aware of the importance of Indonesia to Australia. Whether President Widodo shares the same view about the importance of Australia as a regional partner is a mute point but what we do know is that Australia and Indonesia need each other, despite our cultural and political differences.
Whilst our PM is right to vigorously defend a policy that has disabled the people smuggling trade, he needs to modify his rhetoric about always acting only in Australia’s interests rather than working as a partner within our region; and particularly on matters that really do count.
President Widodo’s ministry needs to do the same.
Ross Taylor is also the President of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)