Photo by Ivetta Inaray on flickr

Photo by Ivetta Inaray on flickr

Despite a much needed reality-check, Australia should still dare to dream big when it comes to Indonesia, argues Ross Tapsell.

Condemned to Crisis?, the Lowy Institute’s new paper on Australia-Indonesia relations, authored by former Australian government official Ken Ward, comes at an important time.

In the aftermath of the executions of Chan and Sukumaran, Australian sentiments toward Indonesia are as low as they have ever been in 10 years of polling (as measured recently by the Lowy Institute’s ‘thermometer’). Many others have described 2015 as the lowest point between our two nations since the East Timor crisis of 1999.

The Lowy Institute has for some time published papers on the Australia-Indonesia relationship. It is worth reflecting on one previous publication, Jamie Mackie’s 2007 Australia and Indonesia: Current Problems, Future Prospects, before turning to Ward’s publication, because the two are so different in their scope and recommendations.

Mackie’s paper was an authoritative big picture view of the national interests and future prospects of the relationship. He concluded that: ‘It is very much in our national interest to achieve the closest possible degree of engagement with Indonesia’. For Mackie, we need to ‘add ballast’ to the relationship to stop it from being blown off course by ‘passing squalls’.

This was the year of ‘Kevin 07’. Kevin Rudd, a graduate of Asian studies, had become Australia’s Prime Minister. In the early stages of his prime ministership, Rudd held a high-level conference, Partners in a New Era. At the opening function, Mackie made a bee-line for Rudd, grabbed him by the arm and said: ‘Are you taking the relationship seriously?’

In his speech at the dinner, Rudd said the two countries have a ‘bigger and broader mandate to make good contributions to the world together’.

For example, he asked ‘how do the major emerging economies and countries including Indonesia, work with other countries, including Australia, through the G20, to deal with the great challenges we now face?’ He concluded by declaring: ‘So yes Jamie, we are taking the relationship seriously’.

If Mackie et al encourage us to close our eyes and dream big, Ward comes along with a bucket of ice cold water to wake us up.

Ward says Australian leaders should no longer declare that there is no more important country to Australia than Indonesia; that it should adopt a more ‘realistic’ rather than ‘wildly ambitious goals vis-├а-vis Indonesia’; and that, for example, Tony Abbott did not need to make his first overseas trip to Indonesia.

The best we can hope for is a ‘stable and pragmatic relationship with Indonesia that is productive from both sides and at the same time capable of weathering storms’, Ward argues.

If Mackie was singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Miserables, Ward’s anthem is the Rolling Stones ‘You can’t always get what you want’.

Departing from the Mackie approach of bold and far-reaching recommendations, Ward’s paper details the recent diplomatic fall-outs, and takes aim at politicians in both countries who have used the problems in the Australia-Indonesia relationship to score points in domestic politics.

Ward states that the problem is not that Australian leaders do not ‘take Indonesia seriously’ (as Mackie feared), but rather that they ‘often mishandle problems when they arise’. This is certainly true of the recent lot.

Since Keating there has been far more emphasis on openly stating our ‘great friendship’ yet diplomatic tension results every time a prickly incident arises. So much for ‘great friendship’, we are left think. To counter this predicament, Ward says that Australian leaders should ‘drop their habit of lavishing praise unduly on the Indonesian government.’

So why the chasm in Ward’s approach compared with Mackie’s? One obvious answer is that Mackie was a very different character to Ward. Reflecting on 50 years on the Indonesia Project at ANU, Hal Hill said of the generation of Mackie’s ilk operated at a time when ‘Australian academics could dream big’.

Mackie remained that way regarding Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. Ward’s background is in public service including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Assessments. His paper reads somewhat as a policy briefing – relevant details and facts are provided from ‘open source’ data – but one that public servants wish they could write when in the job – ladled with acerbic condemnation of various responses from Australian and Indonesian officials.

In comparing the two papers, one can’t help but reflect on the disappointment that has ensued among ‘pro-Asia advocates’ since 2009. What happened since that great fanfare of Rudd’s ‘Partners in a New Era’?

The National Asian Languages in Schools Programs was abandoned in 2012. New Prime Minister Julia Gillard claimed her government wanted to do something bigger. Whatever that was has never eventuated. Indonesian in Australian schools remains in ‘cardiac arrest’.

An Asian century white paper was penned, complete with working groups, press conferences and bold recommendations, designed to ‘actively plans and shape our national future’. It was quickly archived by the Coalition government when they took power.

In 2012 David Hill published a report on Indonesian language in Australian universities, concluding that ‘Indonesian knowledge is dying – just when we need it most’. The report has largely been ignored by both parties. We’ve significantly reduced our aid budget to Indonesia. Actually we don’t have an AusAid department anymore. So in that respect we are less involved and engaged with Indonesia than we were in 2009.

There’s been a few new initiatives by the Abbott government – an Australia-Indonesia Centre at Monash, created during Tony Abbott’s first visit to Indonesia, complete with a ‘Yudhoyono Fellowship’. An ‘Asiabound’ scholarship program has been revamped as a ‘New Colombo Plan’.

These aren’t exactly game-changers, given that Abbott triumphantly declared a policy of ‘More Jakarta less Geneva’, but they do at least provide some substance to the rhetoric; substance which the Labor government often failed to deliver on. But, as Ward’s paper explains, under the Coalition government, we publicly feud more with Jakarta as well.

So Ward’s paper is designed as a reality check of not getting carried away with our ambitions with Indonesia, all of which is sound, sensible and practical advice and well worth reading, particularly for policy-makers or government officials. But it also reflects an increasingly short-term approach to thinking about Australia-Indonesia relations and the issues and challenges that it brings.

Should we all give up on the bigger picture dream? Hugh White disagrees – it’s still ‘worth a try, surely?’ he asks. Mackie passed away in 2011, and so isn’t here to respond to Ward’s paper, but perhaps this quote from one of his publications provides some insight as to what might be his answer:

Closer engagement with Indonesia may still be little more than a dream, but it is a dream worth cherishing – and even proclaiming forthrightly as the goal towards which we should be advancing. It does not greatly matter that the goal will probably remain forever beyond our grasp. It is the direction that the dream provides that is crucial.

Yes, recent Australian politicians have stated ‘wildly ambitious’ goals with regard to Indonesia, goals which have not been achieved. But rather than reduce the ambition, politicians would be better off coming good with some their promises. What? Politicians who walk-the walk as well as talk-the-talk? Now there’s a dreaming a dream of days gone by.

These ‘little more than dreams’ created the aforementioned Indonesia Project at ANU, now celebrating 50 years, the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesian Studies, celebrating 20 years this year, and the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program, established in 1981, to name just a few important initiatives supported by universities and governments.

At the same time, Indonesia would do well to add a few ambitious goals as well; the list of which is pretty stark (a weakness, perhaps, of the Mackie et al approach when it often seemed like it was always up to Australia to further the relationship).

Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia remains complex, befuddled and volatile – and yet as important as ever. Ward’s paper helps us to place these issues in greater context by explaining Indonesia’s view of their neighbours (such as Singapore and Malaysia) and their view of their place in the world under a new Jokowi government.

But how will Australia deeply and constructively engage more effectively in with Indonesia in the next 10 to 20 years? What large-scale programs do we need to invest in the relationship that has the potential to shape the future of the Asia- Pacific region?

These are much more difficult questions, and a bilateral relationship that exists largely to ‘weather storms’ isn’t going to achieve much at a time when climate change, strategic policies, and the movement and subsequent mandatory detention of migrants, are being reshaped in this, the ‘Asian century’.

The Asian century? Hasn’t this card been played for domestic politics already? In the meantime, do you reckon Tony Abbott should ‘shirtfront’ Jokowi?

Ross Tapsell is a lecturer at the School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He is author of the book ‘By-Lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings: Australian Journalists in Indonesia’.

Read more analysis and debate on ‘Condemned to crisis?’ at the Lowy Institute’s ‘The Interpreter‘.