The Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, is not a shirtfront type-of-guy. The Javanese-born leader is everything that regular Indonesia commentators would define as ‘classic Javanese’: conservative, quietly spoken, non-confrontational yet determined, and religious. The latter is about the only thing he had in common with our recently deposed PM, Tony Abbott.
Given the bumps in the bi-lateral relationship prior and since the coalition took office, a ‘warrior-style’ leader such as Mr Abbott was never going to become close mates with President Jokowi as he is known through Indonesia.
Once Malcolm Turnbull settles into his new office, along with foreign minister Julie Bishop, he will need to reflect on the difficult relationship both countries have endured over the past few years. Notwithstanding that under Bishop’s leadership Australia’s foreign policy is generally in good shape, there are some simple lessons that the new PM could embrace when dealing with our giant and near neighbour.
The most obvious is one that Mr Turnbull will understand coming from a senior business background: In negotiations, always try and let the other side at least walk away with something. Mr Abbott showed that this tactic was simply not in his DNA.
Australia has seen a number of lost opportunities in which to achieve the broad outcomes we wanted whilst still maintaining a good relationship with Indonesia. Consider just two examples: The turn-back-the-boats policy was a clear winner for the Abbott Government. It took courage and determination to implement such a forceful policy given the protests from human rights groups and our regional neighbours. The policy has worked, and in doing so the flood of Middle Eastern asylum seekers transiting through Indonesia enroute to Australia slowed dramatically. This represented a solution for both countries, but a significant loss-of-face for Indonesia.
At the time there was an opportunity for Australia to inform Indonesia that whilst we would enforce the turn-back policy, we were prepared to work with Indonesia in order to process some of the (roughly) 10,000 asylum seekers suddenly stranded in Indonesia with nowhere to go. Given that some of these people were refugees, it would have been relatively easy for Australia to accept a small number of them into Australia. Arguably, a sensible and fair gesture.
More recently, Indonesia has been keen to remove the USD$35.00 Visa-on-Arrival (VoA) fee that every one of the one million Australians each year must pay when arriving into Bali. The VoA is actually a tax, not a visa fee, and it causes additional costs to inbound tourists whilst adding considerable processing time at Bali’s International Airport.
Indonesia asked Australia if we could reciprocate to make it easier for Indonesians to visit Australia; not a bad idea given Australia’s need to attract tourists and Indonesia having a huge emerging middle-class with money to spend on tourism-related travel.
Australia was never going to offer Indonesian visitors visa-free access to our country, but we could have offered a face-saving and practical alternative given that it costs a Balinese family of four, for example, $520 to just apply for a visa to holiday in Perth plus pages of application forms rather than online access afforded to Singapore and Malaysia. There was the opportunity for a compromise.
Sadly, in both these examples the ‘Nope, nope, nope’ hard-line approach prevailed, resulting in the Indonesian foreign minister announcing that the VoA for Australians would remain, and ill-feeling about boat turn-backs cemented in their political memories. To Indonesia, Australia’s attitude was: ‘Be reasonable, just do it our way’.
Our new PM does not need to revert to the unrealistic and patronising, ‘Less Geneva, more Jakarta’ approach adopted when Mr Abbott first became PM, but rather recognise that there are practical initiatives available to both countries, including the removal of red tape to allow the exchange of young people more freely.
During the tumultuous events surrounding the executions of Myron Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Mr Turnbull demonstrated how a considered non-combative style could be used effectively when dealing with Asia.
Whilst Mr Abbott was reminding Indonesia that we donated over A$1 billion to the Aceh tsunami appeal, and therefore they owed us a favour by pardoning Chan and Sukumaran, Mr Turnbull (on the ABC’s Q&A) reminded Indonesia that as they fought for their independence from foreign rule in 1945, only one western country stood-by and supported Indonesia as a friend: Australia.
It was a powerful yet subtle statement. Some may argue that it didn’t stop the execution of these two Australians, but Turnbull’s comments – had he been PM – would not have polarised opinion in Indonesia that Australia was threatening their sovereignty and nationalism as did Mr Abbott’s comments, and in doing so putting back the ongoing debate within Indonesia about the death penalty by ten years.
As the Jokowi government continues to be far more nationalistic and inward-looking, despite Jakarta’s preference for Mr Turnbull as PM we should not expect a sudden boost in the relationship. But in reviewing our approach to Indonesia, a recent comment by former army chief, Professor Peter Leahy that Australia needs to ‘stop seeing Indonesia as a potential enemy but rather as a potential ...partner’ maybe a good starting point for our recently refreshed government.
Getting the broader Australian community to embrace this view however, may prove to be much harder.
Ross Taylor AM is the President of the Indonesia Institute Inc. @indorosstaylor
This article originally appeared in The West Australian 28th of September 2015