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

Thursday, July 23, 2015


A shot of reality                                                           

The story so far:  To the boredom of electors who think otherwise, Australian politicians on the hustings pronounce that our big island continent is part of Asia.

They also add a moral instruction while largely ignoring their own advice:  We must get on better terms with the neighbours, particularly Indonesia. There’ll be bumps along the way but our special relationship will help us stay on track.

What speakers, what dates? Silly questions - this rhetorical routine has been part of the election cycle from way back when, as necessary as a candidate’s rosette.

The problem is this:  Voters haven’t bought the message.

Our deafness has been obvious for years. Academics have long warned about the decline in studying Indonesian – less than 1,000 are learning the language in their final school year.  Only 15 of the nation’s 43 universities teach the culture.

Clearly parents and their kids have ignored the politicians and decided that Chinese, Japanese or a European tongue will serve them better.

Almost a million Australians holiday in Hindu Bali every year – but only a fraction venture west into Muslim Java where the real power resides.

Investors also plug their ears to Canberra’s pleas to boost sales to our 250 million neighbours. Two-way trade is worth only $15 billion.  We do more business with Thailand and even more with Singapore.

The Lowy Institute for International Policy has tracked the decline of public trust.  The latest polls show  ‘feelings towards Indonesia, which have never been warm and have at times been characterised by wariness and even fear, have fallen to their lowest point in eight years’.

In his new book Condemned to Crisis? former diplomat Ken Ward argues that President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo is more indifferent than hostile. He wants his nation to be a world power but considers little Australia, with just one tenth of his citizens, too unimportant to help.

The brutal execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, despite pleas and petitions for clemency, can’t be dismissed as yet another passing judder in the relationship following spy allegations, asylum seeker push backs and live cattle export bans.

The gunshots didn’t just terminate the reformed drug smugglers’ lives; they also marked the end of the flawed reasoning that’s been our foreign affairs policy. We’ve seen the raw Indonesia and been horrified. Now we’re back on the real road.

Perth researcher Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller has read the map and been brave enough to tell the truth: 

There’s no special relationship between Canberra and Jakarta and there never was, precisely because the goodwill expressed toward Australia by individual Indonesian political leaders, diplomats and military officers has never really permeated Indonesia’s broader political elite or public consciousness.  Instead, there’s confluence of common interests and personal rapport between leaders at key junctures.’

That rapport is rare and common interests limited. Our history, culture, values, lifestyles and language owe little to Asia.  The praiseworthy migration program that has brought more than seven million new settlers since 1945 has included  Chinese, Vietnamese and Indians – but the greatest numbers have come from the UK and NZ. 

We remain a predominantly European nation eating foods, playing sports and following faiths rooted in another continent far away.  Our ‘special relationships’ are confined to the Anglosphere, particularly the UK and the US, which are also the major investors in Australia.

We claim to have good intentions and be part of the neighbourhood; but we’ll soon have 2,500 US marines in Darwin, just 830 kilometers from Kupang the capital of Nusa Tenggara province.  Imagine our reaction if the Chinese army set up a similar base on Indonesian soil.

 It’s depressing enough to give even the most one-eyed fan of Indonesia reason to turn elsewhere.  Yet despite these depressing facts there are solid practical and moral reasons to stay staunch, listen to the politicians’ messages and demand they hear their own voices.

Indonesia is neither about to move nor shrink.  It will remain our nearest neighbour and the world’s fourth most populous country with almost 90 per cent Muslim.

If we don’t know what’s happening next door, what the folk are thinking and doing, understand their concerns, how can we ever be mates?  And if we’re not – then what are the alternatives?

The time for appeasement has passed. We can’t ignore issues like Indonesia’s vile use of capital punishment, its corrosive corruption and seriously damaged application of the rule of law. We should be strong in condemnation, adding our voices to those in Indonesia who are equally appalled and seeking reform.

Our principles are not for sale, and Indonesia is unlikely to honour a nation that doesn’t plainspeak its values. Developing a respectful relationship built on a hardstand of facts is going to be a long, tough sweat – but the end result should be a safer world for our kids.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 23 July 2015.  For comment see:

No comments: