Sunday, March 3, 2013

Time to start caring about Indonesia next election

I DON'T know about you, but these days I'm beginning to wonder about Australia

The newspapers are filled with melodramatic stories about how hopeless the Prime Minister is, what Caucus members are saying about her behind her back, what Kevin Rudd is up to and how the latest Government announcement on health or industry policy has turned out to be an own goal.
Whatever. I'm no supporter of the Government but even I am getting bored with these stories.
There are a plethora of more important things for us to contemplate than political gossip.
Let me give you an example.
It never ceases to a amaze me how little interest we show as a nation in our next-door neighbours.
Sure, we enjoy American films and culture. And we speak the same language. Certainly, a growing China now takes around one quarter of all our exports, so its prosperity is our prosperity. And yes, there are the lands of our ancestors which still mean a lot to us.
But the only way our security will be directly challenged is if our own neighbourhood falls apart. That's what happened in the 1940s when the Japanese swept through Indonesia and the South Pacific attempting to take over Papua New Guinea.
We need to make sure those countries remain stable and secure. More than that, we need to engage constructively with Indonesia and the small and often unstable countries of the South Pacific. Paul Keating as prime minister made the decisive point; if the relationship with our neighbour, Indonesia, collapsed, we'd have to spend twice as much as we do on defence.
Frankly, it is astonishing that our media and the public more generally write, talk and think so little about Indonesia.
I was told recently that a senior member of the SA Cabinet had to ask where Yogyakarta was! I'm too discreet to tell you who he is. It's not only a large city in Java but it's the cultural capital of Java.
Indonesia is our neighbour and it's huge. It has 10 times the population of Australia but with a smaller GDP. It is 6000km from one end of the Indonesian archipelago to the other and it straddles some of the world's most important and sensitive trade routes.
Over the years, our relations with Indonesia have been troubled. During the Sukarno era, Australia's relationship with Indonesia was tense and at times bellicose, particularly at the time of confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia.
For many Australians, the arrival via a coup d'etat of president Suharto was seen as a godsend. Sure he was a dictator but he was anti-communist during the Cold War and he seemed interested enough in a stable relationship with Australia.
Well, you'll remember that Paul Keating invested heavily in his relationship with Suharto. Frankly, he was right to do so. But surely Tim Fischer went too far when, much to my amazement, he announced Suharto was the greatest figure of the second half of the 20th century!
Suharto was the embodiment of that old American saying: "He may be a son of a bitch but at least he's our son of a bitch." When I met with him in Jakarta from time to time I found him austere and patronising. But at least he wanted to keep things with Australia on an even keel.
But of all the presidents Indonesia has had since independence, the most overtly pro-Australian has been the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
He was the co-ordinating minister for security at the time of the first Bali bombing. It was out of that tragedy that John Howard and I were able to build a strong personal relationship with him.
I well recall the moment in Jakarta in January 2005 just after we pledged $1 billion to Indonesia to help fund the post-tsunami reconstruction. President Yudhoyono came across the room and took my hand in both of his hands. With tears in his eyes he said he would never forget Australia's generosity to Indonesia in its time of need.
Now you can have a debate about how well we've handled relations with Indonesia over the past five or so years. The big point is this. In just over a year's time, President Yudhoyono's term will come to an end. That's all the time we have left to deal with this most pro-Australian of presidents of our huge and vital next-door neighbour.
Once he goes, it will be, for Australia, the end of a golden era.
Australia has to make the most of this period, because no one knows yet who the next president will be.
Of the current likely candidates, any one of them could present Australia with some difficulties. For a start, the current favourite is the son-in-law of president Suharto - a former general called Prabowo Subianto. He was the head of the Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus in the 1990s.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Prabowo was wildly unpopular with many Australian NGOs because of alleged human rights abuses in East Timor. He is unlikely to be a fan of our great country.
Now, General Prabowo may not win the election but the point is this: Whoever does, the golden era of the Yudhoyono administration is drawing to a close.
Australian leaders should be thinking about this. It matters.
It matters because we need a stable, friendly and economically prosperous Indonesia as a next-door neighbour.
Yet you seldom hear a word about Indonesia unless it relates to one of our foolish drug traffickers locked up in a Balinese jail.
Or unless it's the latest saga in the boat people scandal.
Well, I'll tell you this; without the co-operation of the Indonesian government, we have no hope of stopping the boats. That's just one more reason why we should care about who wins next year's Indonesian presidential election.
Alexander Downer was foreign affairs minister in the Howard government from 1996 to 2007

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