An Indonesia time-bomb
27 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jose Antonio Gelado

Deep into the Press Club foreign affairs debate a faint ticking started—the hint of a time-bomb in Australia–Indonesia relations.

The Indonesia time-bomb wasn’t directly mentioned, just hinted. That is apt because Australia’s international relations have hardly been mentioned in this election.

In that spirit, come to the Indonesia time-bomb after inspecting surface issues.

Foreign affairs obviously matters in the Australian system. See the eminence of those doing foreign policy, even if it’ll have minimal impact on Saturday’s vote.

The Liberal deputy leader is Foreign Minister while the Labor deputy leader is shadow Foreign Minister.

The foreign affairs debate at the National Press Club last week was a contest between two women who—in party hierarchy and seniority—are one step away from being Prime Minister.

Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek can warm their leadership ambitions by the bonfire Kevin Rudd lit under the hoodoo that you can’t step from Foreign to be leader.

The Kevin won leadership the first time from the shadow Foreign job and got his second go as leader after being shunted as Foreign Minister.

Thus died the tradition that Foreign was the consolation prize given deposed leaders such as Hayden and Downer.

Tony Abbott wants to create a new tradition—the discarded leader gets Defence. If Malcolm Turnbull wins, the size of his majority will have a big say in whether he adopts this fresh custom.

Turnbull could rule that a-win-is-a-win and act as he pleases (the usual Liberal way).

Or he might bring Abbott inside the cabinet tent. Cue The Godfather music…’keep your friends close and your enemies closer’…

Majorities deliver power. The meaning of the mandate is less absolute. The voters decide and the winner can then devise and dispatch and deploy and divide the spoils.

Whatever mandate Turnbull wins—or Shorten snatches—it’ll have a domestic flavour. This has been an election about the internals, not the international.

The Press Club foreign affairs debate last week and the defence version the week before showed those areas won’t decide the outcome.

Bipartisanship reduces political brawling. Plibersek referred to Labor’s broad agreement with the Liberals on the US alliance, international institutions and engagement with Asia. Bishop nodded the same way.

What, then, separates the Libs and Labor in foreign policy?

You’ll not be surprised that on the answers from the two deputy leaders, Labor presents as the multilateralist/internationalist, the Liberals as pragmatic realists.

Plibersek’s analysis:

‘The greatest difference is in our approach to those problems without passports—the big global issues that face us. Climate change, the movement of people, the rise of non-state actors, health pandemics in an increasingly interconnected world. We think that Australia’s best chance of security and prosperity, too, is being part of a secure and prosperous world. And that requires us to be a good global citizen.’

The Libs aren’t going to let Labor own ‘good international citizen’, even if Gareth Evans has part copyright. Bishop said the Libs do good by being good at what they do:

‘I believe the difference comes down to approach. There’s a commendable level of bipartisanship in most areas of foreign policy. But it’s the difference in approach. Labor is very keen on White Papers and strategies but then not funding them and not delivering on them. It’s all very well to have an Asian White Paper but then if you don’t fund it and you don’t deliver any outcomes, it’s of no use. They had Defence White Papers but didn’t ever fund them. So, as Sir Arthur Tange said, a strategy without funding is no strategy at all.’

Now to the Indonesia time-bomb. As so often, it arrives via East Timor. Poor Timor Leste – independence won at grievous cost yet still buffeted by the needs of two big neighbours.

Plibersek announced in February that a Labor government would accept international arbitration over Australia’s sea boundary/resources dispute with Timor Leste.

At the Press Club, Plibersek said Australia should do what it’s urging China to do in the South China Sea—abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice.

Labor would ditch Canberra’s stance that the existing bilateral treaty with Dili is generous and shouldn’t be reopened.

The stand rests on Australia’s 2002 decision to withdraw from the maritime jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Bishop told the Press Club: ‘We should maintain our commitment to the existing treaty.’

Plibersek: ‘We have decided it’s time for this issue to be settled.’

Bishop swiped Plibersek for not getting detailed briefings from Foreign Affairs before making the Timor change. Plibersek retorted that she was briefed and understood the issues.

The to-and-fro about full knowledge is when that faint ticking started.

Australia is being tough about Timor Leste’s border so it doesn’t set off the border time-bomb with Indonesia.

If Australia accepts international arbitration because the existing Timor treaty is ‘unfair’, that opens the way for Indonesia to do the same.

Jakarta has long maintained it was ‘taken to the cleaners’ by Australia in two seabed boundary agreements signed in 1971 and 1972.

Those treaties divided ownership by referring to the continental shelf, drawing the boundary well north of the median line between the shores of Australia and Indonesia. More for Oz, less for Indonesia.

Since then, international law has embraced the median-line concept. In international arbitration today, Indonesia would expect to get a lot of what is currently Oz.