When Tony Abbott made his, ‘More Jakarta and less Geneva’ speech in 2013, it was seen as heralding a new era in Australia-Indonesia relations; a reflection of views held by Paul Keating in 1994 when the then Prime Minister said, ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.’
With Indonesia’s economy poised to pass that of Australia within ten years, a 245 million population including over 90 million young people and an annual growth rate of 7-8% it made sense to acknowledge that Indonesia was critically important to Australia, not only in trade and business but also for our long-term security and regional stability.
Today, the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is at an all-time low; ministers hardly talk to each other, with many Australians seeing their Indonesian neighbours through the eyes of suspicion, whilst Indonesians see Australia through the eyes of mendiamkan - or roughly translated, to just leave in peace or silence.
Perhaps the biggest – yet forgivable – mistake made by Mr Abbott when he made the ‘More Jakarta’ reference, was to assume that the acknowledgment of Jakarta’s importance to Australia would be reciprocated in the longer-term. With Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – affectionately known as SBY - as President of Indonesia, and his articulate and savvy Foreign Minister, Dr Marty Natalegawa directing regional and foreign policy, there was every reason to assume that both nations had a genuine and critical interest in being good and trusting neighbours.
SBY’s son had studied at Curtin University in Perth and the President and Foreign Minister had a good understanding of Australia Both were highly respected and admired by the international community, despite the huge disappointment in SBY’s performance domestically throughout Indonesia.
Another of Mr Abbott’s memorable quotes in 2013 was that the Federal Coalition was a government whose relationship with Indonesia would be one of, ‘no surprises and (one that was based upon) mutual trust’.
Then the spying scandal broke in late 2013, resulting in a strong and angry reaction from Jakarta. There was more to come, with the first boat turn-back taking place in 2014.
Australia ‘got out of jail’ on both issues thanks to SBY’s desire to complete his term as Indonesia’s president with the bi-lateral relationship with Australia on good terms, and also that boat turn-backs were – apart from not being particularly big news in Indonesia – actually helping Jakarta control the inflow of Middle-Eastern asylum seekers who were using Indonesia as the primary transit point.
As the 2014 elections in Indonesia drew closer it became clear that this comfortable relationship was going to change, and with the emergence of a new President, Joko Widodo, an uncertain and far more fragile era had arrived.
Jokowi, as he is widely known throughout Indonesia, was elected with a strong mandate from the people, but that is about as far as the good news went given that he had little support from the national parliament and even less support from his own party, the PDI-P, headed by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Suddenly our Foreign Minister couldn’t pick-up the phone to ‘Pak Marty’ anymore, as we saw only too clearly during the Bali Nine execution debacle, and Mr Abbott, with his shirt–fronting Anglo Saxon style of leadership was coming face-to-face with a new Indonesian leader who was very Javanese: Reserved, gracious but with a long memory.
It was no surprise to the Abbott government, that the Jokowi leadership would reveal a more conservative, nationalistic, and inward looking Indonesia. What wasn’t predicted however, was just how inexperienced and politically weak the Jokowi Government would be, and how soon after the election this would test the bi-lateral relationship with Australia.
Today, the signs are worrying. Indonesia’s economy has slowed to around 4.9%; hardly enough to provide enough jobs for students entering the workforce. The skills-match between students and the work place needs are also poorly aligned. Protection of the agriculture sector – that employs over 45 million people – will ensure the continuance of mainly subsistence farming and a future challenge for Indonesia to even feed itself.
The failure of the President to protect the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, is disturbing. The KPK represents Indonesia’s only hope of really pushing-on with the critical issue of addressing corruption, and a weakened KPK is another worrying development The emergence of the military into civilian life and a National Police that seems to be completely disinterested in the directions or views of the President, all add to the concerns about the Jokowi leadership.
Meanwhile, at a grass-roots level, there is still widespread support throughout Indonesia for their president, and business people from North Asia seem to be embracing the new environment better than most Western countries. Indonesia is looking north, not south, for investment and trade relations.
Therefore, the temptation must be great for our government to simply allow the bi-lateral relationship to ‘bumble’ along for now. But here lies the dilemma for Australia: We probably need Indonesia more than Indonesia needs us at present. Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and it is also democratically stable, reinforcing Australia’s strategic interest for Indonesia to continue to progress economically and politically.
The rise-and rise of China in the region demands close co-operation between Indonesia and Australia, and the emergence of ISIS-backed terrorist groups within Indonesia pose a serious threat to Australia and the one million Australians who visit Bali every year. The close relations between the Australian Federal Police that was developed post-Bali bombings with their Indonesia counterparts (POLRI) will need to be maintained and cultivated to ensure both countries keep their citizens safe from the scourge of ISIS. Most of Australia's resource and manufactured exports pass through Indonesian territorial waters to our north; something we conveniently overlook as we see the Indonesian navy as potential enemies rather than partners.
‘More Jakarta and less Geneva’ was an important vision for the incoming Abbott government, but with the emergence of a new, nationalistic and a more Asia-focused government in Indonesia, we can no longer assume that our mission to fully engage with our close neighbour will be reciprocated.
Ross Taylor AM is the President of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)