An Indonesian boatload of asylum seekers Photo: Wolter Peeters
Australia's national interest lies in having 10 resilient, prosperous and interconnected neighbours, lying across our northern approaches. This is unarguable. And it's the context for our relationship with the largest ASEAN member, Indonesia.
Yet Australia's relations with Indonesia are threatened by the political slogan “Turn back the boats”. It would be nice to know that when the shadow cabinet settled on the slogan, Julie Bishop had argued against it and for the imperatives of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.
Either way, the Abbott Government must recognise that within Indonesia public opinion creates foreign policy pressures, as it does in Australia.
Earlier this year on a visit to Jakarta I raised our concern that irregular migrants from Iran arrived in Jakarta, paid 25 dollars for a visa at the airport and then travelled to Indonesian ports and pay money to people smugglers to get into Australian waters.
In the context of our excellent working relationship with Indonesia, two of their ministers said they understood our concern. As a result, in August they were to end the visa-on-arrival system for Iranians. But the Indonesians made it clear they would be implementing this reform to meet their own
domestic dynamics, to tidy up their own immigration system. In other words, they could not and would not be seen to be doing this as a favour to another nation.
This reflects a view in the Indonesian parliament and media that Indonesia always comes out second-best in dealing with foreigners. For example, last year President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reduced Schapelle Corby's sentence by five years. This was in response to representations by Australia that had been made in private and not transmitted through public diplomacy.
The President, however, faced loud criticism from members of the Indonesian parliament whose members are strongly opposed to illegal drug use.
The Indonesian foreign ministry, in an unprecedented move, last week released minutes of previously confidential discussions with Foreign Minister Bishop. That can be read in only one way. Their government was managing domestic opinion, which wants to know their leaders aren't caving in to intrusions on Indonesian sovereignty, especially by a brash new bunch of Aussie politicians.
Alexander Downer dismissed Indonesian sensibilities as “pious rhetoric”. Not helpful. Indonesian sensibilities have to be seriously weighed.
Two months ago the Indonesian Government was alarmed and offended by news that a so-called “Freedom Flotilla” of protesting Australians was headed for its Papuan provinces. This was a small and isolated protest, but an element of Indonesian opinion saw it as reflecting dark Australian designs to ultimately carve out their two Papuan provinces from the Republic.
We took the Indonesian concerns seriously. In that spirit I said that if protesters knowingly and after due warning violated Indonesian immigration laws they should not expect a million dollars of Australian consular attention to be expended on their case. And a DFAT officer on Thursday Island quietly persuaded them to return.
When I gave this news to Minister Marty Natalegawa at the G20 in St Petersburg he expressed satisfaction with the outcome and with Australia's understanding of Indonesian sensitivities. What might have been to Indonesian public opinion a provocative Australian action never proceeded. We remain in agreement with the Indonesians that their two Papuan provinces present human rights concerns but no argument about sovereignty.
Taking a similar approach, Prime Minister Tony Abbott should drop his somewhat nutty policy of buying Indonesian fishing boats. Indonesia has an estimated 726,000 boats along its coastline. By the way, imagine how Australian public opinion, inflamed by talkback demagogues, would greet a comparable Indonesian incursion into our domestic policy?