Asian gazing (part V): Australia & Indonesia on boats and jokes
6 Jun 2013|

Marty Natalegawa, Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs.Tony Abbott’s ‘stop the boats’ promise is going to test Australia’s relationship with Indonesia in several important ways. Not least in this looming test will be the issue of which side has the ability to impose its priorities and define the norms in play.

Electoral timetables also matter. The polls say Abbott is cruising towards a big win in Australia’s September election. These days, though, elections also change things in Indonesia. And next year’s presidential poll in Indonesia is an all change moment as SBY departs the scene.

The uncertain politics of Indonesia mean this is not a great time for Australia to be seeking wink-and-nod deals on issues that Indonesia’s politicians, press and people will see as sailing close to Indonesia’s sovereignty and status. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, used the Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur to again push back at any Australian shift to push back boats carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia.

He was responding to a question from Professor William Maley, the director of the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, about Jakarta’s response if Australia started trying to force such boats back to Indonesian waters. Marty replied that Australia had always been a key partner in building regional architecture and, ‘I’m sure that will continue to be the case.’ He pointed to Australia’s membership of the East Asia Summit and the way Kevin Rudd’s unsuccessful call for the creation of a new Asia Pacific Community had been one element in ASEAN’s decision to expand EAS membership to admit the United States. With that as the setup, Marty then turned to the boats issue: ‘We don’t have a place in our region for unilateralism. That’s one thing we can do without. We need rules and norms.’

The norms torch can shine in several directions. It isn’t just a question of the application of international law on the high seas, but also the regional norms of behaviour that Canberra and Jakarta have jointly sought to craft over the last decade through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. The beauty of the process for Australia is the chance to get the rest of the region to embrace a lot of what we want in a forum that’s driven by Indonesia. This is a partnership with Indonesia and a regional process with multiple benefits.

To see the recent Oz political context for that rules and norms line by the Indonesian Foreign Minister, see these recent stories by The Guardian Australia. Here’s the initial yarn quoting the deputy Liberal Leader and shadow Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, claiming that Indonesian ministers have privately promised to help turn back people-smuggling boats. And here’s a later Guardian piece on Bishop’s battle in Parliament over her wink-and-nod suggestion. This has a key quote; when asked whether Indonesia would take boats back, Bishop replied:

I am confident we would be able to achieve what we did in the past. The fact is they are Indonesian boats with Indonesian crew and I am sure we can work co-operatively with them and … one thing you understand about diplomacy and others do as well is the professional diplomats are paid to present particular views but what goes on behind the scenes can be quite different. What people say privately can be different to what they say publicly, that’s why I am devoting my time to quiet consistent diplomatic messaging and relationships.

Nods and norms don’t always go together; which brings me in a roundabout way to some jokes from the KL Roundtable. Step forward one of the smartest people in the Jakarta firmament, Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Rizal was lamenting that Indonesians no longer tell political jokes the way they once did.  Because it was so hard to talk about politics during the Suharto era, everybody told jokes that carried political points. Now, Indonesians could just argue about politics all the time, so they didn’t need political jokes.

Rizal immediately disproved his point by making a regional political joke. Singapore, he said, had no opposition but lots of government. Indonesia, by contrast, had a surplus of opposition because even the government acts like the opposition. Later, I offered Rizal my riff on his line. It used to be that everybody knew who would win Indonesia’s presidential election, while the winner of Australia’s election was an open question. Now we know who is going to win in Oz but no one even knows who will be the main presidential candidates in Indonesia. There mightn’t be much humour in my effort, but it has enough truth to matter, as does Rizal’s light rendering of the problems of getting effective leadership out of Indonesia’s vigorous democracy.

Australia has an ever-clearer understanding of the government it’s about to get. Indonesia is about to set off on a thrilling journey into the political unknown with a myriad cast of potential presidents and enormous opportunities for spills, thrills and popular excitement. Those in Jakarta with the power to agree to anything that Australia might want—tacit or otherwise—are about to be shaken, stirred and changed.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations – Geneva.


As an aside, let me offer one of my favourite Indonesian jokes, which Indonesia’s fourth President, Abdurrahman Wahid (aka Gus Dur) , told against himself and his predecessors. He said that Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was crazy about sex; then came Suharto, who was crazy about money; next was Habibie, who was just crazy; and then, said Gus Dur, there’s Gus Dur, who drives everybody else crazy. When he was displaced by Megawati, Gus Dur added another line: Now we have Mega, who is crazy about shopping!

True humour can be as true as it is funny.