Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Adieu, Tony Abbott: A fresh start for Indonesia?

With Abbott gone and Turnbull stepping in, Australia-Indonesia relations may finally have the fresh start it desperately needs.

Tony Abbott is finally out of the picture. After months of being criticized and challenged even by his own party members, he is at last stepping down as Australia’s prime minister — making way for his successor Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott had been under accusations since the moment he took office in September 2013. There had been numerous accusations ranging from tax loopholes and corruption issues by officials of his government to being single-handedly responsible for plotting the destruction of the mighty Great Barrier Reef and a crusader for global warming.

The latter arose when he intended to drop climate change issues at the G20 meeting in 2014 and appointed Maurice Newman as his advisor. Newman is an economist notorious for calling climate change a “scientific delusion” (The Guardian, Jan. 7, 2014) and alluding to the whole science behind it as a scheme to make money.

Abbott’s numbers were already collapsing to a record low since February this year, yet he took another ridiculous approach to pander for public support: giving a knighthood to Prince Philip on last Australia Day, a move that left many people wondering if Abbott was simply “out of his mind”.

The Australian public might not have been fans of Abbott’s predecessor, Julia Gillard, when she was in charge of the land down under, but at least that was for all the wrong reasons: that she is a strong, independent woman who is just on the other side of what people see a “good” woman should be.

While it is safe to say that Gillard was not the public’s sweetheart, Abbott, on the other hand, was vilified in the media. Perhaps in one of his final attempts to regain supporters, he appeased the Australian public by condemning Indonesia and recalling Ambassador Paul Grigson for executing the Bali Nine duo last April.

These are imprudent measures that could potentially lead to severed relations between the two neighbors. They substantiate what had been clear to me before: A major thing that was missing from Abbott’s political agenda is a solid approach to bilateral relations with Indonesia, which was thrown into a tailspin earlier this year.

Bilateral relations between Australia and Indonesia are undoubtedly an indispensable one, for Australia is completely aware of Indonesia’s importance and hegemony in ASEAN. The group is a crucial element in the success of Australia’s foreign policies, especially when it comes to Operation Sovereign Border, a matter on which Abbott was very outspoken and rather blatantly upholds.

Plus, the Australian government is still under allegations of paying people-smugglers money to turn asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

Politically, stable relations with Indonesia are extremely important to Australia to ensure its survival as well as to thrive in the region. Economically, Indonesia is an important partner for Australia — for example, when Australia banned exports of live cattle to Indonesia in 2011, its cattle industry took a big hit and lost A$600 million in a month while Indonesia was fairly unaffected by the decision as it shifted to other suppliers. Surely, we assume Australia has learned its lesson for restraining its relations with the neighbor.

In the more than 50 years that Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations have stood, six high-level visits to Australia have been conducted by Indonesian presidents, while as many as 21 visits by Australian prime ministers have been conducted to Indonesia. I believe there is a certain inference that can be taken from this.

Stable relations with Indonesia are extremely important to Australia to ensure its survival.

Australia is indeed a powerful country with its population ranked the second- best in the Human Development Index (HDI) by UNDP, a nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$1.2 trillion and per capita nearly the same as the US. Nevertheless, regional politics is not a zero-sum game.

It requires cooperation and alliance among states in tackling issues and pursuing common interests to survive and thrive, and Indonesia is a predominant player in the region and therefore an important ally to Australia or any other country in the region for that matter.

Between the spying scandal in late 2014, people-smugglers payments and recalling of its ambassador earlier this year, Australia should be extra careful in laying out maneuvers toward Indonesia in the future.

Although current Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s agenda appears to be domestic-centered and his foreign policies remain relatively West-inclined, it is important to note that his party and the think tank at the Foreign Ministry have a strong national stance and are not afraid of any overseas threat that is perceived as undermining Indonesia’s national interests, let alone sovereignty. This notion has been demonstrated by Jokowi’s firm stance on the death penalty for drug dealers despite criticism.

Fortunately, even though it is a little too late to say that Abbott-Jokowi relations could be similar to relations between John Howard and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s predecessor, it is still reasonable to assume that Indonesia and Australia stand a fairly good chance of drawing up a more suitable outlook on their relationship, especially now that Turnbull will be in power.

Turnbull, much like Gillard, is known among his colleagues for his bold, progressive stance. He strongly supports gay marriage and has a much more sensible approach regarding climate change than his predecessors. Some even view him as an “upgrade” from the previous prime minister. His progressive approach, though may not be substantial at first, could indicate what would help improve relations between the two neighbors.

As the past dictates, their bilateral relations were relatively better under the leadership of more progressive prime ministers such as Rudd or Gillard. I am hopeful to say that both countries are on their way to setting things right and amending what has gone wrong between them.

With Abbott gone and Turnbull stepping in, Australia-Indonesia relations may finally have the fresh start it desperately needs.

The writer is studying at Seattle Central Community College, the US, and Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung.


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