The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


                              Let the flag follow the trade

It’s a curious cluster – Jamaica, Luxemburg, Costa Rica and Jordan.  Squashed in the middle at 73 is Indonesia.  It’s a lousy rank on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Register because it shouts at potential investors:  Beware!  Yet Australians are being urged by their government to take risks.

Simon Birmingham is a perpetual grinner.  This makes the SA Senator ideal for dealing with Indonesian politicians and business folk who prefer smiling to stern. 

The Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment is doing high-fives at a distance having scored the free-trade goal which eluded his four predecessors.  But pity his wife Courtney.

This is probably the response when she asks if he’d like a coffee:  ‘I’ll consider putting it on the table once the situation resolves itself, for a breakfast beverage forges closer people-to-people relationships and creates a pivotal framework to unlock our bi-lateral partnership particularly when we share a common geographic zone which has many unrealised possibilities ....’ 

By the time he’s come up with an answer, Mrs B would have driven their two girls to school and the kettle would have boiled dry.

That’s how it was last week when Birmingham took almost half a one-hour webcast to tell 1,600 well-informed participants facts they knew well.  His job was to launch the Indonesia-Australia 

Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement which has taken ten years of often stumbling talk to shred tariffs between the two neighbours. 

The imbalance is stark. Last year Australia imported AUD 3 billion worth of Indonesian products and sent commodities valued at AUD 6.7 billion the other way.  Jesters quip:  ‘Indonesia has great potential – and always will.’

West Australian Phil Turtle, chair of the Australia – Indonesia Business Council which hosted the show, is also a cheerful guy, hampering his task of prising anything specific out of the garrulous Birmingham.  He never succeeded.

Apart from his instinct to maunder, the minister – along with the corporate world - doesn’t know how the IA-CEPA will work post-pandemic.  It might be a splendid achievement which benefits all – or a good idea which doesn’t function, like the Covid-19 app.

The polis on both sides and the business folk who have been pushing for this logical deal deserve applause.  Talks often snagged well-charted cays careful captains would have avoided.

The most recent was just 18 months ago when Scott Morrison reckoned steaming behind Donald Trump and recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a smart idea.  Though not the Indonesian negotiators.

Palestinian leaders pushed Muslim countries to ban Australian imports if the embassy was moved.  Indonesia isn’t an Islamic state but officially 88 per cent of its 270 million citizens follow the faith.  

Someone with a little knowledge of such issues pointed out the sensitivities.  Morrison slammed the engines into reverse by saying no embassy move from Tel Aviv until there’s a peace settlement.  The talks were refloated.

The big stuff looks OK. If all goes well in the next few years there’ll be more Ozzie grains flowing into Indonesian silos, and cattle running into feedlots.

The deal includes a 575,000-head quota, expanding four per cent annually.  This should give pastoralists a more certain market than the on-off, up-down situation they’ve been facing.

That’s provided Black Sea growers and Indian buffalo farmers don’t undercut the Australian price or that the ultra-nationalists don’t start shouting that our wheats are contaminated and haram.  These are the sort of tactics used in the past to thwart competition.  

Tariffs are cudgels in trade brawls.  Eliminating them is like banning knuckledusters – the thugs just turn to knives.  There are ministerial regulations, VATs, import licences, luxury taxes, quarantine rules and wharf delays in the isolationists’ armoury.

Although the IA-CEPA boosters claim Indonesia will now send us furniture, fish and fabrics, they could have done so anyway. The 2010 ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area agreement eliminated tariffs on most goods from developing countries.  Few exporters have been interested because the Australian market is finicky and too small, one Aussie consumer to every 11 Indonesians. 

Cars are also included, but there’s a problem under the bonnet.  Australia wants electrics. There are plans for Indonesia to start production, but factories are still tooled to make internal combustion engines.

More encouraging is the deal allowing tertiary educators into the archipelago. Monash is the most ambitious, led by pro-vice-chancellor Professor Andrew MacIntyre. 

It’s set to open post-grad courses in Jakarta in late 2021, making it the first foreign branch campus in Indonesia.

Although other nations have long allowed overseas educators onto their soil, (Monash is already in Selangor in Malaysia, Suzhou in China and Mumbai in India)  paranoid administrations have resisted, knowing foreigners usually have better standards and higher qualifications than local academics, drawing students seeking quality.

The uni hopes for 2,000 master’s students, 1,000 executive education students and 100 doctoral candidates in the next decade. Grads will get Monash degrees.

Absent from the on-line rah-rah was former investment banker Thomas Lembong, the Harvard-educated one-time Trade Minister, now head of the Investment Coordinating Board.  

Although he lasted less than a year in the ministry, he was an articulate and enthusiastic promoter of free trade. This delighted the Australians though not Indonesian protectionists urging the government to crimp imports and put more energy into making the Republic self-sufficient.  The latest idea being promoted by President Joko Widodo is to create intensive farming ‘food estates’.

During the talks the Indonesians sought jobs for nurses, maids and construction crews - extending people exports beyond Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.  

Indonesian workers are often multi-skilled, willing and prepared to live in remote areas.  Here the nervous negotiators fearing a domestic political backlash (cue unions and Pauline Hanson) took a tough line.

The IA-CEPA does boost quotas on work and holiday visas, eventually allowing entry for 5,000 Indonesians a year. Till Covid-19 arrived, visas were unlimited for most European backpackers who labour on market gardens and farms.  Make of that what you will.

Overall this FTA is a leap forward for Australian primary producers and a shuffle ahead for courageous others.  At this stage, it’s difficult to see many benefits for Indonesian shoppers unless the deal is backed by massive and consistent promotions highlighting Aussie quality and raising awareness of origins.  The flag of friendship might then follow trade.

 (Covid-19 update:  As the mainstream media generally ignores the health crisis next door we report more than 70,000 officially confirmed cases and close to 3,500 deaths.)

(First published in Pearls and Irritations, 14 July 2020:

Thursday, July 09, 2020


Scared of the same bogeyman? Let’s cooperate 

Was Indonesia alerted ahead of the PM’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan announcement?  The presumption is that key people were tipped off, largely because there’s been no blow-back.

The 126-page document makes no mention of Indonesia, though the world’s largest archipelago stands between us and any real or imagined Chinese threat.  

If a Red fleet starts nuclear-powering our way it has two sea-lane choices: Directly through the South China Sea where it has already established military posts, or the roundabout route.  This would skirt the Philippines then through the Pacific Islands where the Middle Kingdom has been consolidating political support. 

There are five mentions in the Australian plan of ‘our region’ along with four for its apparent synonym, the ill-defined ‘Indo- Pacific.’ 

‘ASEAN’ (seven of its ten members have disputes with China over boundaries) and ‘Southeast Asia’ don’t get guernseys.  

China wasn’t mentioned but there’s widespread acceptance that it’s the target, and the current location of any likely conflict the South China Sea. Since 1947 Beijing has claimed a U-shaped zone marked on maps by a line of dashes down the 1,500 km strait.

In 2016 the Philippines challenged this assumption.  The Permanent Court of Arbitration sitting in The Hague found ‘no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line'.’  

China ignored the ruling and is reportedly continuing to fish the waters and consolidate bases around the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Meanwhile Indonesia is also strengthening airfields and ports in its nearby Natuna Islands.

The 2006 Lombok Treaty, correctly titled the Agreement between Australia and the Republic of Indonesia on the Framework for Security Cooperation, set terms for talking.  The first clause in Article Three says ‘there shall be ‘regular consultation on defence and security issues of common concern; and on their respective defence policies’.

On any reading that means Jakarta should have been told about Canberra’s plans, so it’s strange there’s been no official confirmation, if only to placate Indonesia’s hyper-nationalists. Instead we’re getting nods and winks, like the Nine Entertainment papers hinting that ‘the upgrade in Australia's strike capacity is likely to be quietly welcomed by our allies in the region.’

One theory for the silence is that it would mean revealing Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has been confiding with her Indonesian counterpart, Prabowo Subianto ahead of the Australian people.  Necessary but distasteful to liberals.

The disgraced former general and son-in-law of second president Soeharto is not Mr Nice Guy.  He fled to exile in Jordan following the 1998 fall of his former protector and after being discharged from the army for ‘misinterpreting orders’ when protesting students disappeared.

He later returned, gathered business backers and became rich, largely through palm-oil plantations and paper mills.  Last year the General Elections’ Commission reported his wealth at almost AUD 2 billion.

Subianto has long been trying for the top job, most recently last year when his Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) Party sided with radical Islamic groups. He’s reportedly still on a US visa blacklist for alleged human rights abuses in East Timor and Jakarta, making it tricky for negotiating arms deals.

Since being given his present job by President Joko Widodo to keep the aggressive opportunist out of domestic politics, Subianto has been on shopping trips to ten countries, including Russia (twice) and China, though without much luck.

According to a Bloomberg report Washington has put pressure on Indonesia to drop an AUD 1.6 billion plan to buy 11 Sukhoi Su-35 Russian fighter jets and spend AUD 287 million on Chinese military vessels.

This is more catch up than new plans.  Early last decade the administration of sixth President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) introduced its Minimum Essential Force plan to upgrade the armed forces’ hardware.

Indonesia can put almost half-a-million men and a few women into uniform, and muster a similar number of reservists, but can’t equip them well.  Small arms are made locally, but the swifter, smarter whizz-bangs now being readied in the West and China can only be bought from overseas or made under licence.
Doing business with Russia and China, Indonesia's largest trading partner, carries domestic political risks.  The Communist Party has been outlawed in Indonesia since 1966, and like the PM’s references to German fascism in the 1930s, remains a bugbear to make the littlies wet themselves.

The wild-eyed reckon Widodo is a covert Pinko because so many infrastructure projects have been financed – and built – by Beijing contractors.  It’s an idea as loony as the Bill Gates’ world control fantasy, though not easily dismissed as it’s often pushed by white-clad clerics.

The AUD 7.5 billion set aside by Jakarta for healthcare, social protection and economic stimulus programmes during the Covid-19 pandemic is gnawing the defence budget, now down to AUD 11.7 billion from the AUD 12.3 billion allocated earlier.

It’s difficult for laid-back Aussies to understand some states think we’re a threat.  But paranoid Indonesians have a list reminding that the ‘deputy sheriff of Southeast Asia’ (a line attributed to former PM John Howard) got his star from Washington.

Other remembered Irritants include our backing of East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999 (which resulted in an earlier treaty being shredded), and in 2013 getting caught eavesdropping President SBY and his wife Ani’s phones.  

Also on the distrusters’ tally sheet are US marines training in Darwin, new armaments, airfield upgrades and spy-bases along our north coast and Central Australia. We say these are defensive.  That’s not how they appear to those peering south and seeing the pointy ends of weapons aimed their way.  

Don’t be ridiculous, we’d say, they’ll just sail high above your 6,000 inhabited islands like Qantas heading to Singapore. You’ll rarely see contrails and never hear the thrusters. No need to get jumpy like the Japanese when Kim Jong-un tests his big rockets.

Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller writing in the Lowy’s Institute’s The Interpreter is urging ‘deft management by Australian policymakers’ in handling Indonesian concerns.

The Queensland Uni academic reminded that ‘despite growing strategic convergence, its (Canberra’s) views will not always align with those in Jakarta.

‘New and innovative modalities of cooperation with Indonesia and other regional states will need to be formulated and adequately resourced if Defence is to achieve its new strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific.’

In short – talk.  And put a lot of time and effort into the job.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 9 July 2020:

Wednesday, July 08, 2020


Passionate advocate for Aboriginal rights

Sometimes some of the humblest of characters assume greatness in their own lifetime and by any measure May Lorna O’Brien was one of those people.

This lady was known simply as Aunty May but her life and her achievements will long be indelibly marked in the history of Western Australia.

She was a remarkable Aboriginal woman and her fierce determination (sometimes misconstrued as just being obstinate and stubborn) was the hallmark of her determination to succeed.

Her life began in the tiny all-but-forgotten settlement of Patricia in 1933, when she was given the name, “Loona”, which may well have been her Aboriginal name. When as a very young child she went to live with a family that she thought may adopt her, she was given the name May.

These multiple names were used to good effect and on one occasion the much-feared chief protector of Aborigines, Mr A.O. Neville, came to Mt Margaret Mission looking for a young light-skinned Aboriginal girl called Lorna. This was a time when light-skinned Aboriginal girls were removed from their parents.

 Aunty May fitted the description of this young girl perfectly and the suspicious Mr Neville asked her several times for her name and, not wanting to tell a lie to such an important man, she said “My name is May”.

Mr R. Schenk, the missionary in charge of Mt Margaret, confirmed to Neville that her name was indeed May and even at that very young age, it was obvious that this girl had the “smarts”. There was no way that Neville and his co-protectors of Aborigines were going to get her into their custody on that particular day and soon thereafter, they left empty-handed.

Aunty May remained at the mission from 1938 until 1950, when she was given the opportunity to go to Perth with three other girls to further her education. While she was excited about going to a big school in a big city, she was not too excited about having to wear a uniform with its box pleats and belt in the middle.

At 17 years old, she was just a little bit “sassy” and the school principal said because she was the oldest kid enrolled at a WA high school, and because her IQ test results were quite poor, she was being sent back to the mission to become a domestic.

That was like waving a red rag at a bull and the impetuous May

Lorna Miller borrowed some money, went to an off-limits telephone box and promptly rang Dr Robertson, the director-general of education. Her timely call had the desired effect and Aunty May remained at Perth Girls School for the next two years before starting teacher training at Claremont Teachers College.

Aunty May was a passionate fighter for the rights of her people and from a very young age, she fought to become a “citizen” of this country.

It made her angry that under the laws of the country at the time, that she and other Aboriginal people were denied this right.

As an educator, her passion for equality and acceptance for her people in schools across WA and the country knew no bounds. She argued the case for IQ tests to be changed because she believed that these tests were culturally biased and she was right. She was a fearsome player in the battle for equity within education and there were many bureaucrats and politicians who regretted the day they took on Aunty May in any debate relating to the rights of Aboriginal people.

She rose to become the boss of Aboriginal education in WA and a leading advocate on powerful committees and “think tanks” that debated and formulated strategies to give Aboriginal people equity and opportunity in education precincts right across the country.

For her unwavering commitment and passion for her people and her work, she was recognised and applauded on many occasions. She received a British Empire Medal for her work in education in 1977, was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 1983, in 1991 she was made a fellow of Edith Cowan University and in 1998 Aunty May was inducted into the Department of Education’s Hall of Fame.

 A legend was born and none of this escaped the love of her life, Jack O’Brien, who she had married in 1972 and whom she fondly regarded as “her Charles Bronson”.

Her Christian faith kept her strong throughout her remarkable life and Aunty May and Jack were reunited in heaven on March 1, 2020 — a place where she is no doubt rearranging the furniture as we speak.

Monday, July 06, 2020


                                     Half time, and the team is flagging

Mid last century Indonesia’s founding president Soekarno was a dazzling demagogue, feared and loathed by the West and admired by the East.  Apart from Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), his successors’ performances at the podium have been pedestrian – till now.  Suddenly Joko Widodo, the epitome of a mild-mannered Javanese, has let loose.  

In a dressing down of his ministers the President was blunt: Covid-19 is real and they have responsibilities.  But will anything change?  

Widodo’s reading of the riot act would have suited a coach’s locker-room broadside with his team floundering, ready to kick off their boots rather than kick on the game.

The tirade was delivered on 18 June, but such is the laziness of Jakarta journalists that it didn’t leak.   After ten days of silence, frustrated palace officials released a video of an almost ten-minute spray.

Almost two million have watched so far, not a bad tune-in to a political lecture delivered by a poli best known for his shuffling style.   Instead, he took a splash of the Soekarno spirit and the effect was intoxicating – a mix of anger, frustration and emotion stirred with verve.

How powerful?  Here’s proof: No one could be seen checking smartphones.  Briefly breaking into English an animated Widodo told his colleagues they were ignoring the “sense of crisis” gripping the Republic.

In Indonesian, he said he’d risk his political reputation to handle the fallout from voters upset by his policies: “I will take any extraordinary steps for our 267 million citizens. These could be disbanding institutions, or it could be a reshuffle, I have thought of many options.

“We have budgeted Rp 75 trillion (AUD 7.5 billion) but only 1.5 per cent has been disbursed. All the money that’s supposed to be for the people is stuck there. The much-anticipated social aid program should be disbursed quickly.”

His COS Moeldoko later explained to the media the President had been telling ministers for some time they weren’t coping with the health and economic disasters thrashing the archipelago, damaging the lives of millions. 

 “The President is concerned his aides think this is a normal situation,” he said. “They need to be reminded, and the last warning was the latest among many.”  Parents of teens know this repetitious scene well: ‘I’m telling you to clean your room again – this is final.’

Back in February before a group of alleged celebrities, Widodo revealed he was considering firing slackers.   Last month in the East Java capital Surabaya the President gave officials a fortnight to get their act together. Nothing happened. 

The seat-polishers have yawned away the threats reckoning they’re untouchable.  Many hold their jobs not through merit but inter-faction deals which keep the six-party governing coalition intact.
There have been critics aplenty alleging inaction during the past three months, but Widodo kept calm. 
His temper was well tested. Transportation Minister Budi Sumadi stuffed up a ban on travel during the Islamic fasting month by handing out dispensations for Mudik the traditional Islamic fasting-month exodus from big cities to villages.  Multiple thousands packed trains and busses.

The AUD 7.5 billion highlighted by Widodo has been allocated for healthcare, social protection and economic stimulus programmes to try and keep the country breathing.

Tiny when put against Australia’s AUD 259 billion rescue package, but that’s not all. The Internet seethes with allegations of funds evaporating before reaching the needy. So far no impartial investigation.

Last month Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa told a parliamentary hearing an extra 5.5 million could soon be jobless.  If he’s right, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is heading downstream fast, drowning workers in its wake.

Monoarfa estimated those under the poverty line could exceed 27 million, ten per cent of the total population.  Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the line was Rp 440,538 (AUD 45) a month. 

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati is a non-party economist, formerly with the World Bank Group. She told the same hearing the GDP will shrink further in the second quarter.
Confused citizens have put up with more than two months of Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar (large scale social restrictions).  These are supposed to end on 16 July. They’ve been poorly policed, often ignored and largely ineffective as the official death toll rises.  

The Republic’s testing rates are abysmal - 3,185 per million, one of the lowest in the world, so who knows how bad things are?   To date 60,695 cases have been confirmed and 3,036 deaths. As reported earlier NGOs and scientists have been shouting the real figures are probably three to four times higher.

Voters are mightily fed up with the administration, so at one level Widodo’s rant appears to be a political tactic to shift blame.  However, there’s no doubt his emotion was genuine.  Australian traders who’ve wallowed through the blancmange of Indonesian bureaucracy (World Bank ease of doing business ranking: 73) will relate to his exasperation.
Here’s the dilemma.  By abandoning Javanese reserve and showing the wong cilik (ordinary people) he needs their support, Widodo is admitting his impotence at the top end of town.  He’s also made enemies by shaming ministers in public.  Maintaining status is critical in Indonesian culture, particularly for the majority Javanese.

It’s said the authoritarian second president General Soeharto never had to raise his voice to get things done.  Wags claimed his ministers followed a 4D code – datang, duduk, diam, dapat duit (come, sit down, be quiet, get paid)

The current mess is partly Widodo’s fault as he held off telling the situation was serious for fear of causing fright.  Then he urged the sick to drink jamu, the traditional herb medicine while Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto prescribed prayer.

Overall the commentariat has been unsympathetic, saying Widodo’s speech is two months too late.  Some have dismissed it as a publicity stunt because the video was offered to the media on a Sunday ready for Monday’s papers.

The Jakarta Post’s editorial writers, maybe miffed because they missed a scoop, turned up the cynicism: ‘Perhaps all he (Widodo) wants is just a change of perspective. We hope that, whether he does reshuffle his Cabinet or not, people will feel the heat and work harder.’

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 6 July 2020: