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

Monday, September 04, 2006



It’s become part of the diplomatic creed: Dear God, may understanding of culture, history and politics improve on both sides of the Indian Ocean so our peoples may live in peace and prosperity, now and forever. Amen.

Such is the need that even atheists would applaud.

Indonesians seeking an incandescent example of the relationship hassles with their big southern neighbor will be illuminated by the reported comments of legislator Djoko Susilo.

He claimed the withdrawal of contentious immigration legislation by Prime Minister John Howard was to “trick the Indonesian Government.”

Djoko is entitled to his theory and as a member of the House of Representatives Commission 1 overseeing security and international affairs his opinions have wings.

We should be thankful the National Mandate Party (PAN) member is a politician and not a pilot. His views are so far off course any plane he flew towards Sabang would end up in Merauke.

Howard is certainly a Machiavellian politician, regarded by many commentators as the most accomplished in Australia’s recent history. But to suggest that he wasn’t fair dinkum in trying to get his Migration Amendment Bill through Parliament is like saying President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono didn’t really want peace in Aceh.

Yet it’s easy to see how Indonesians can misunderstand the situation because politics in Australia, as elsewhere, are complex.

Howard pulled the bill when it became obvious he didn’t have the numbers to get it passed in the Senate. That was a shrewd move to avoid the shame of a defeat.

A few members of his own Liberal party had even broken ranks and voted against the bill in the lower house – though not enough to make any difference. Reading opponents’ speeches and comments (see The Jakarta Post 22 August for one Labor member’s reasoning) it’s clear they were conscience-driven.

You have to live in Australia to understand the present depth of feeling against Indonesia and Islam and which is driving populist politics. It’s not just terrorist bombs – Indonesian fishers poaching shark in Australia’s northern waters is an issue with real bite.

In one survey of 551 private and public schoolchildren in Victoria earlier this year more than half saw Muslims as terrorists. (To be fair, one third also reckoned Aussies were racist.)

An election is due next year. Howard’s bill was a ploy to reinforce his fame as defender of the virgin Great South Land against the world’s rapacious riff-raff.

As an immigrant society Australia takes more than 100,000 newcomers every year plus humanitarian cases, but wants to pick and chose. Don’t come unless you’re invited and we’ve checked you out.

Contrary to Djoko’s assertion Howard is widely believed to be doing his best to improve relations with Indonesia. That may not have been the situation when he took office 10 years ago, but it is now. When President Susilo made his first official visit to Australia in April last year Howard had already been to the archipelago 11 times.

The problem is that Howard has been trying too hard, and his efforts have been translated as appeasement.

For any long-standing democracy with a sense of history that’s an inflammatory charge. The word is volatile, the fuse lit back in 1938 when British PM Neville Chamberlain was dealing with an increasingly militant Germany.

There are a few Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and churches in Australia pushing for an independent Papua (or West Papua as it’s known Down Under.) Their voices may be shrill, but their numbers miniscule.

Protests outside the Indonesian consulate in Perth have now dwindled to one a month and only a handful attend.

Both government and opposition speak of respecting Indonesian sovereignty, but neither can speak for the uncontrollable NGOs.

It’s always a mistake in Australian politics to assume that public interest can be gauged by placard wavers. Aussies are too busy with work and sport (maybe that should be the other way around) to burn flags or shake fists – but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel strongly in their hearts.

So when Howard tried to make life even tougher for boat people seeking refuge, the compassion factor kicked in. The public knew that not all are so-called ‘economic refugees’, or terrorists masquerading as the persecuted.

Most asylum seekers have proved to be genuine. Stories of those who’ve done well despite all the problems are legion. There’ll be one in your suburb or workplace for sure.

The Little Aussie Battler who makes it despite fickle fate and all the bastardry of bureaucrats is a powerful icon. It even applies to folk with dark skins and funny accents – a positive side to multiculturalism.

A similar thing happened in 1999 when the people elbowed the government into supporting the East Timorese referendum. Records show Howard clearly wanted any change to be minor, calibrated and delayed.

The voters remembered that the rugged Timorese supported the Diggers fighting the Japanese in the 1940s at terrible cost to themselves. It was a debt that had to be repaid and to hell with diplomatic delicacies.

Djoko reportedly argued that it was incomprehensible for Howard to withdraw his legislation when he held power in both houses of Parliament.

That overlooks the numbers. In the Senate the Liberals have 39 seats, Labor 28 with nine held by minor parties.

It needs just a couple of gutsy politicians to go against their mates and the minors to back Labor for the government’s will to be thwarted.

That’s what was going to happen – so Howard took his bat and ball and went home. It’s called democracy in action – and the regret is that there’s not enough of it on either side of the Indian Ocean.

First published in The Jakarta Post 4 September 06

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