Indonesia crisis entirely of Tony Abbott’s making

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(Image by John Graham / johngraham.alphalink.com.au)

Australia’s media are keeping readers ignorant of critical aspects of the diplomatic crisis with Indonesia, while some coverage is actually worsening the situation. Alan Austin reports from Melbourne.

THE STAND-OFF with Indonesia is being seriously misreported by Australia’s mainstream media.

That may not surprise. But it should be of profound concern to those who recall the extensive economic damage and tragic loss of life the last time the Coalition mishandled relations with neighbours.

Damage done already since the Abbott government was elected has been underreported. Australians have been shown neither the depth of hostility felt towards Australia nor the consequences of the prime minister’s ineptitude.

The Indonesian government has withdrawn its ambassador (for just the second time in 60 years), lowered diplomatic relations and stopped intelligence sharing. It has suspended military and defence cooperation and halted two ongoing joint exercises — one in Darwin and one in West Java. Officials say they will withdraw cooperation in slowing people smuggling from Africa and elsewhere.

Indonesian officials are now publicly attacking Australians. Deputy chairman of Indonesia's foreign affairs commission Tebagus Hasannudin described Tony Abbott as “lacking in diplomacy skills” among other insults.

Australian flags are being burned at demonstrations. Australia’s embassy has been attacked by angry protesters. Some are calling for war against Australia and these calls are being reported in the region.

Kompas newspaper’s poll yesterday claimed eight per cent of Indonesians support a military strike against Australia. That’s a small percentage, but it’s twenty million people.

Travel is being disrupted with the Department of Foreign Affairs warning Australians to 'exercise a high degree of caution'. Australians are leaving areas of perceived risk, disrupting tourism, commerce and development.

Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce has been forced to postpone this week’s scheduled meetings with counterparts in Jakarta. Beef trade negotiations are at a delicate stage. Substantial reductions to Australia’s quota are now probable. Other trade and military agreements are also under threat.

Indonesian hackers have claimed responsibility for cyber attacks on websites of the Federal Police and the Reserve Bank. Expect more of these.

All these raise costs and lower revenues in both nations, risking budget blow-outs.

Another serious misreading is that the Indonesians are upset about the 2009 phone-tapping. The Murdoch press, not surprisingly, is pushing the line that

'The former government's phone taps are behind the blow up with Indonesia.'

This is nonsense. Just a pathetic attempt to shield the hapless Tony Abbott. Indonesia has almost certainly long known of those phone taps, as has Australia and the US and probably other allies as well. It is widely understood privately that this happens routinely. In fact, former intelligence chief Abdullah Hendropriyono has admitted Indonesia spies on Australia.

Indonesia’s concerns derive from much more recent events – five of them – all of Abbott’s making.

First, slashing overseas aid.

About $647 million was allocated to Indonesian development projects this financial year. More than three quarters goes to health, education and economic development.

The Abbott government’s announced $4.5 billion cut to future overseas aid will significantly disadvantage the poorest Indonesians. It also insults the nation.

Second, the Abbott-led Coalition denigrating Indonesia with its “illegal boats” rhetoric, both in opposition and now in government.

Promises to “stop the boats”, or “buy the boats” or “tow back the boats” are all intentions to act unilaterally on Indonesian sovereign territory. These were all offensive.

According to the Lowy Institute’s Dave McRae:

'...the Coalition's insistence that they did not need Indonesia's permission to turn back boats made asylum seekers a point of emotive nationalism, where previously they had rarely been discussed within Indonesia.'

Third, Abbott’s ill-advised fleeting post-election visits to neighbours to say, in effect: "Sorry about all the nasty insults. I just wanted to get elected”.

After stated or implied criticisms of New Guinea, Indonesia and Malaysia over several years, Abbott foolishly believed he could instantly erase the profound offence given.

This did not go down well. One newspaper cartoon shows the Indonesian president scoffing at a departing Abbott, saying “I turned back the budgie smuggler!”

Fourth, last week’s confirmation of the craven hypocrisy of the Coalition’s asylum seekers policy.

In the lead-up to the September election, the Coalition displayed a prominent billboard (pictured below) declaring:

'How many illegal boats have arrived since Labor took over? 639 illegal boats. Labor has lost control of Australia's borders.'

Now, however, according to immigration minister Scott Morrison, giving specific numbers of boat arrivals will “be used to decipher the posture of border protection assets” and encourage more boats.

So which is it?

(Image via smh.com.au)

Does revealing boat numbers aid people smuggling? If the answer is yes, then the Abbott-led opposition was actively facilitating this during the Rudd and Gillard governments.

If the answer is no, then the Abbott-led government is lying now and manipulating the people and institutions of Australia and Indonesia for political advantage.

Either way, Abbott’s duplicity deserves – and now appears to be receiving – the contempt of the government and people of Indonesia.

Finally, now news of the 2009 phone-tapping has been revealed publicly, Abbott has refused to express public remorse for that abuse of the relationship.

The Indonesian president made it explicit last Tuesday that this was his expectation. The Australian prime minister, he said, had “belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse”. These actions, he added, had “certainly damaged” the relationship.

The broader historic context is also being ignored by much of Australia’s media.

Indonesians have not forgotten the disastrous relations with Australia during the Howard years, despite the restoration of sound relations since. Nor are they unaware Abbott was a minister during that unfortunate period.

Indonesians watched with dismay the Howard government adopt the racist anti-Asian policies proclaimed by Pauline Hanson. Aid to Indonesia was slashed in the first two Costello budgets, during the Asia’s severe economic downturn. Anti-Asian and anti-Islamic rhetoric was ramped up. Dog-whistling became the national song.

In response to the Howard regime’s policy shifts, bombers killed 92 Australians at Bali nightclubs in 2002 and in 2005.

More were killed when suicide bombers attacked the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels in 2003. The Australian embassy was bombed in 2004, causing nine deaths and 150 injuries.

Relations reached rock bottom in 2006 when Indonesia recalled its ambassador over a poorly-handled dispute relating to Irian Jayan asylum seekers (that was the first time).

Abbott’s strident refusal to respond appropriately in this dispute shows he understands neither the nature of the offence nor the context in which it is occurring. It also shows he is spurning the professional advice he is surely receiving.

To diplomats and observers with experience in South-East Asia, the required response was simply a prompt public apology, a promised investigation into how it came about and assurances it won’t happen again. Once the offence became public, a brief grovel had to be public as well. Even Bob Katter accepts this as self-evident.

This would certainly have averted the damage done already. Abbott’s response instead was interpreted as “We can do whatever we want because we are superior to you.”

The longer the appropriate apology is delayed the deeper the resentment will be — and the more costly the medium and long term consequences.

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