Instead of a long state visit Malcolm Turnbull used a 10-hour Jakarta stopover for his first official trip as Australian prime minister to meet the northern neighbours.
The much-reported reason before he dashed to Berlin was to ‘reset’ the relationship.
A ‘reset’ follows a circuit-breaker trip. Flick a switch and if there’s no system fault the lights come on.
Not this time.
After a year in office we understand little about President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo other than he’s indecisive, believes shooting traffickers fixes drug problems, and is powerless to stop regular illegal firestick-farming threatening world health.
We also know the leader of the world’s third largest democracy blows thought bubbles (which his ministers pop) on issues like joining the TPP, and appears awkward at international events. The Jakarta Post explained this was his ‘contemplative nature’.
Much is scuttlebutt – that he doesn’t read documents, is beholden to oligarchs and bored by foreign affairs. Newsclips of his meeting last month in the US with Barack Obama and business heads did nothing to erase these calumnies.
On the upside the nation has not been ripped by vengeful losers following the 2014 election. There have been health care reforms and fuel subsidies partially removed. The seventh president is not a military fascist. What you see is what you get, a plain man free of guile.
His party patron Megawati Sukarnoputri once claimed he was too thin to be a real politician. If girth equals graft then slender Jokowi should be whistle-clean.
This doesn’t help him wade through Jakarta’s political slimepit, but it endears him to the electorate, though love is on the wane. Polls showing approval down from 70 to 50 per cent in a year reflect dismay that performance hasn’t matched promise.
He’s failed the smoke alarm test with the fires in Kalimantan; now another challenge looms – a rice shortage following droughts. If prices rocket with imports the masses will not confine their rage to tweets.
Real warmth between the two leaders will probably remain elusive but Turnbull did well – he smiled a lot and it looked sincere. Abbott-style pugnacity wins no friends in the Republic where personality trumps policy and visitors must be halus – refined, gracious and sensitive – and have a sense of fun.
The PM and his wife Lucy obliged. Charm disarms. Jokowi took Turnbull to the overcrowded Tanah Abang textile market for one of his trademark blusukan (walkabout among ordinary folk).
Indonesian media described the informal scene as ‘hot, stuffy and boisterous’ but Jokowi was in his element, looking happier than usual. Jacketless Turnbull, snapping selfies, seemed amused.
Certainly a few hours facetime is better than a diplomatic note, but change won’t come through speed dating. This courtship needs to be Java-style – slow and seemly. Turnbull, seeking contact points spoke of both being in business. The link is slight.
The silvertail lawyer and banker grew up with vistas of Sydney Harbour; the provincial furniture trader was raised in a shack illegally pitched by the Solo River – not for the view but its ablution values.
One was a Rhodes Scholar – the other an unexceptional forestry graduate. Now the two men have to see each other’s perspective.
The other much thumped drum is that Indonesia is ‘our most important relationship’. Absolutely – though the feeling is one-way. More worrying is that Australian governments have long been hypocritical, disbelieving their own rhetoric.
If otherwise, the Turnbulls would have spent relaxed days, not hours in Indonesia, reviving friendships built over long careers in public life.
There’d be no need for a ‘biggest ever’ 300-strong business delegation coming in Turnbull’s wake because substantial trade would have been built long ago. Communications with Jakarta would be as stable as they are with Manila and Singapore.
No costly ephemeral PR exercise called Window on Australia because the image would already be benign. If that money had been put into scholarships the number of Indonesians currently studying in Australia (below 14,000) might overtake the Nepalese.
Jokowi’s pre-election statements included Nawacita (nine principles, mainly motherhoods) and Mental Revolution. This called for a strong military, food and energy independence and reduced reliance on foreign investment. The delegation led by Trade Minister Andrew Robb might ask if these short documents are still valid.
Business opportunities are being crimped by Jokowi’s capricious approach to policy, a tumbling rupiah and the growth of strident nationalism and protectionism.
Earlier this year Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey told a Griffith Asia Institute forum that the Australian public was generally hostile and ill-informed about Indonesia. The polls prove his point, and the situation is getting worse.
The government hasn’t seriously backed Indonesian studies which Lindsey predicted will be extinct within eight years. This isn’t a new universe in the galaxy – other educators have been observing the same for much of this century.
Presumably Robb’s mob is Asia-aware, but if the pessimists are right the next generation of Australian exporters and investors will know little about their market.
The Turnbull trip listed the standard trinity of topics favoured by visiting Australian politicians – trade, security and investment. All important, but having no immediate impact on the daily lives of the toilers; they tend to see their neighbour seeking to control Christian Eastern Indonesia according to polls cited by Lindsey.
Window on Australia should help diminish ignorance about Australia, but doesn’t confront the absurdity of a secular sport-obsessed nation having neo-colonial ambitions. Indonesians fought for four years to expel the Dutch; they can be seismometer-sensitive to real or imagined threats to sovereignty in ways Australians find hard to understand.
Sensitive issues like the death penalty and visas were off the agenda. The problem of 11,000 asylum seekers stuck in the Archipelago while heading to Australia was apparently not addressed. This was despite Indonesian kite-flying ahead of the leaders’ meeting which Turnbull kept stressing was about ‘jobs and growth’. So the failed boat people’s fate remains a pebble in the shoe.
After the meeting came statements no-one could fault – the need for more cooperation, cattle breeding and tourism. No detail, no contracts, no aid packages.
Contrary to some media reports this was not Turnbull’s first overseas trip as PM. His priority was tiny, placid New Zealand for two days last month. He’ll spend more time in Malaysia coming back from Europe than the nation where the relationship is allegedly so important.
Academics, businesspeople and others with long-term knowledge of Indonesia say building good connections needs time and personal engagement. This trip says the government knows it knows better.
Indonesians are too polite to say so, but they recognize the realities: The Australian PM comes across far better than Abbott. He appeared to have had a fun break. But his real mission was in Europe where he’ll meet 19 other world leaders.
No reset yet. The system faults remain but the two men seem to have found a switch. Maybe the switch.
Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.
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