Fuse lit with rhetorical bomb about Indonesia

Illustration: ANDREW DYSON
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So, this is what it looks like when you outsource your foreign policy to Alan Jones. “You do what you like, but we gave you a billion dollars when you were hit by the tsunami,” he boomed recently onQ&A, his message directed squarely at the Indonesian President, who had rejected Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s death-row pleas to have their lives spared.

I’m with Jones on the cause. Very rarely would an execution be more needless than in this apparently inevitable case. Rarely have we seen better cases of demonstrated remorse and rehabilitation. But to use aid – for a disaster in which more than100,000 Indonesians died – as leverage? That’s taking us to dark places.

Perhaps it was a fit of frustration that led Tony Abbott down precisely this path. After every effort the government has made, that frustration would be understandable. Perhaps Abbott calculated that the cause was so utterly hopeless that he had given up entirely on convincing the Indonesians to relent, and chose instead to play to his domestic audience. Or perhaps Abbott didn’t grasp the gravity of suggesting that Indonesia “reciprocate” for our aid with clemency.

But that’s the problem. Abbott isn’t running talkback. He’s running international diplomacy. And in that world of maddeningly polite, highly coded speech, this is a rhetorical bomb. It says our aid is conditional, that it imposes obligations and that if we feel those obligations haven’t been met, we might just withhold it in future.

That’s a hell of thing to imply, even in private. Especially when you’re a country currently slashing foreign aid, and already hugely outspent by countries like China. But said in public, it’s a wealthy country with far less leverage than it thinks trying to lord it over a developing one.

Hence Indonesia’s extraordinary diplomatic serve: “no one responds well to threats,” declared a spokesman for the foreign ministry, which sounds ominously like a diplomat’s way of saying “you’ve just blown it”. It’s a particularly sharp response that reveals a particularly sharp sensitivity. Partly this is about the politics of drug smuggling in Indonesia.

Every nation has its irrational belligerences; its issues where the politics dictate it is impossible to be too tough, where compassion is recast as weakness, and weakness is unforgivable. For us, it’s probably boat people. For Indonesia, it’s probably drugs. And when that’s the political logic, the very last thing you can be seen to be doing is capitulating before a threat. “If you need something from somebody always give that person a way to hand it to you,” advises one of Sue Monk Kidd’s characters inThe Secret Life of Bees. That is precisely what our tsunami aid manoeuvre has denied Indonesia.

But this stand-off is also about something bigger. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Indonesia’s response is its allegation that “people will show their true colours”: that our “threats” are not an isolatedfaux pas, but reveal something deeply characteristic about us as a nation. That through Indonesian eyes, this is all part of a broader pattern of objectionable behaviour.

Those objections are well rehearsed: we treat Indonesia’s sovereignty with contempt, ignore their cries of offence, and then feel entitled to order them to do our bidding. It’s at moments like these that such Indonesian grievances come home to roost.

Some of this tension is ancient: our support for East Timorese independence is scarcely forgotten, and fuels a long-standing fear we want to break chunks off Indonesia’s territory. But much of it is recent, too. Some of this is transient – as with Indonesia’s anger over the Gillard government’s snap suspension over the live cattle trade.

Other objections are more enduring, as with our asylum-seeker boats turnback policy – an objection only amplified when it became clear Australian naval vessels had crossed, unauthorised, into Indonesian waters. It’s the kind of thing we forget and dismiss, but to a nation like Indonesia with a weak navy and a gigantic coastline to defend, it feels like a serious violation of its borders.

Meanwhile, both sides of politics have long demanded Indonesia crack down on people smuggling in a way that barely acknowledges that the asylum seekers there don’t want to stay, and Indonesia doesn’t want to keep them. That makes it far more our problem than theirs, but one we’ve insisted they solve. We got a sense of the level of tension this causes when Indonesia decided to release the transcript of conversations between both countries’ foreign ministers in which Julie Bishop asked for asylum-seeker issues to be kept “behind the scenes”. This was a clear, angry attempt to embarrass Australia.

Then, of course, there were the revelations the Rudd government had tapped the phones of the Indonesian president and his wife. Indonesia swiftly demanded an apology, to which the new Abbott government responded by refusing even to acknowledge the practice, much less pledge it would be abandoned. Abbott defended Australia’s “intelligence gathering” as “reasonable”, and Indonesia recalled its ambassador and temporarily withdrew all co-operation on people smuggling.

Meanwhile, perhaps for colour, the government’s pollster, Mark Textor, likened the Indonesian foreign minister to a “1970s Filipino porn star” and upon learning of Indonesia’s offence throughout the episode, tweeted that “no-one gives a rat’s arse in the real world”.

Well, it’s all pretty real now. Sure, hope is eternal, but we’re at the point of hoping for a miracle. Perhaps it was always destined to be this way. I’m certainly not blaming the Australian government for Chan’s and Sukumaran’s plight, and such is Indonesia’s dogmatism on this that there’s every chancethe result would be the same, however pristine the relationship.

But whatever the case, the final exchanges of this tragedy have revealed something worth pondering: our relationship with Indonesia is in a state of disrepair. And in that relationship,there will surely come times when plenty of us will give whatever part of the rat you care to name.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and winner of the 2014 Walkley award for best columnist. He co-hosts Network Ten’sThe Projectand lectures in politics at Monash University.

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