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, June 20, 2016


Don’t stir the giant possum next door                                  
Back in the 1970s presenters on the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) stations were urged to use a ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent.
This ludicrous instruction was designed to please the plumb-in-mouth British and the quick-lipped Americans. It only succeeded in annoying Australian nationalists who wanted their own ‘strine’ recognised.
But like the Greek philosopher Plato’s fabled lost land of Atlantis, the ‘mid-Atlantic’ was also the place where Australians secretly wished they lived, close to cousins.
That’s still the sad situation as the Federal election campaign cranks its way to the 2 July climax when more than 15.5 million citizens will go to the polls.  Australia is one of 22 nations (the majority in Latin America) that make voting compulsory. Turnout is usually around 95 per cent; the 2012 US Federal election had a 55 per cent turnout.
Australia has a bicameral parliament with 12 senators elected from each of the six states plus two each from the two Territories. The House of Representatives has 125 seats.
In what has been a yawn-inducing eight-week campaign, candidates have for the most part stuck to scripts prepared by party bosses. 
The first televised clash between Labor leader Bill Shorten and Liberal Malcolm Turnbull - the current Prime Minister - was a Bland v Bland show. Veteran political journalist Paul Bongiorno called it ‘the most unwatched leaders’ debate in its 32-year history’. 
At the time of writing most pundits reckon Turnbull, backed by the rural-based National Party, will win the Lower House by a whisker. However because this is a double-dissolution election with all Senate seats contested (normally only half the Senators retire every three years) predictions are best left to those studying chicken entrails.  Minor parties may hold sway in the Upper House.
Unlike the US presidential contest, foreign affairs are seldom mentioned as the two major contestants gargle the same chants on domestic affairs – the sacred trinity of more jobs, less tax and higher growth.
Agreed positions include the ANZUS Security Treaty with America and New Zealand (wholehearted approval), keeping asylum seekers in detention to deter others (accept with a tweak here and there), and avoid upsetting Indonesia.  Or as Australians say – don’t stir the possum.
An exception is the minority Greens Party which wants the offshore detention centres closed and more refugees welcomed, but so far attracted little support.
Occasionally a maverick breaks ranks.  The most important has been Deputy PM and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce commenting on Australia halting live beef shipments to Indonesia in 2011.  He implied this led to a surge in asylum seeker boats carrying Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians but coming through Indonesia.
As reported in Strategic Review on 4 April this year, the exports were abruptly stopped by the former Labor government when activists published videos of gratuitous cruelty at Indonesian abattoirs. The ban was imposed a few weeks ahead of the fasting month of Ramadhan when beef is in much demand, infuriating importers and consumers.
Indonesia, unwilling to feature in its neighbor’s domestic disputes, denied Joyce’s suggestion.  The minister’s more disciplined colleagues reheated the usual menu of excuses – the media misreported, the candidate misspoke, words were taken out of context, blah, blah.  But voters nudged, winked and connected the dots.
Cattle are once again being shipped across the Arafura Sea and the slaughterhouses have allegedly stopped brutalising stock. Animal welfare activists want the trade scrapped, but pastoralists are grinning again under their broad-brimmed hats. Australia is the world’s largest live stock exporter, and Indonesia the biggest buyer.
It’s the same with wheat, another market Australia is desperate not to lose; mature politicians know one perceived slight could reignite anger.  The most inflammatory issue is likely to be West Papua independence. Although Labor and Liberal swear support for Indonesian control of the province, some left-wing unions goad Indonesia by flying the Morning Star flag banned in Indonesia.
Andre Siregar, the Indonesian consul in Darwin, has reportedly asked for an outdoor mural of the flag to be erased. The north coast port is home to activists agitating for separatism. Siregar’s alleged involvement ensured wide coverage and a reminder of Indonesian intolerance.
Australians can relate to former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau’s famous anxiety about being close to the US: ‘Like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, if one can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.’
Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, is not always friendly or even-tempered. As it’s not part of the Anglosphere few Australians know what to make of their huge northern neighbor. Around a million enjoy cheap holidays in Bali every year but few go further than the Hindu island and into Islamic Java where the real power throbs.
Last year’s Lowy Institute poll revealed Australians’ feelings towards Indonesia. It said these had fallen to ‘the equal lowest point in our past decade of polling … This places Indonesia on a par with Russia and Egypt.’  
Only 34 per cent of Australians surveyed regard Indonesia as a democracy, though the world’s fourth largest nation has had that status since 1999.
In the mid 1990s the acerbic Labor PM Paul Keating went to Jakarta and said: ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.’
Astonishingly Keating, an avowed democrat, got on well with then President Soeharto whose reputation was already being shredded by students and activists kicking against the dictator’s corruption. 
His decision to step down in 1998 amidst widespread riots was followed by Indonesia’s scorched earth withdrawal from East Timor.  Then came the 2002 Bali bomb and other outrages targeting Westerners.
Australians started rethinking the Keating doctrine, noting that a reciprocal view never comes from Indonesia.
 ‘Indonesia is important’ has become a mantra uttered by every Australian PM since Keating.  Tony Abbott, the man Turnbull overthrew last year, promised his foreign policy would be ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’. It wasn’t, and Abbott’s clumsy and futile attempts to save two Australian drug traffickers from the death penalty added angst on both sides.
The routine comments about the relationship will surely be repeated again by whoever wins next month’s election. The voters will pay little attention; they fear Indonesia is too complex to comprehend, too weird to fathom and too unpredictable to trust.
It also remains too close for comfort – a situation unlikely to change this side of the next Ice Age. That leaves Australians having to ignore the facts, or accept and adjust. Or as they say in the vernacular: ‘Get real’.
(First published in Strategic Review 20June 2016 -  )

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