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Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post
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Commentary: Pragmatic ties under the abbot of Canberra

  • Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, September 9, 2013 | 09:41 am

What do you get when you combine an Anglosphere monarchist, Rhodes scholar, seminary dropout, ex-journalist and conservative?

In today'€™s world, the next prime minister of Australia.

Most Indonesians know little about Liberal Party leader Anthony John '€œTony'€ Abbott, whose party on Saturday swept to power and made him Australia'€™s 28th prime minister.

As of Sunday, he represents the living face of Australia to Indonesians and next month, with his attendance at the APEC Summit, he will be the most famous Australian in Bali.

Abbott will be the fourth serving prime minister from Down Under to shake President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono'€™s hand.

They have met in their official capacities at least three times. Putting aside the diplomatic pleasantries and the fact they happened to be wearing matching ties '€” twice a Democratic Party blue and once red '€” during those meetings, little is known of whether their rapport can generate the kind of chemical reaction that drives relations further.

Given his margin of victory, it is a safe bet that Abbott will still be prime minister this time next year when Yudhoyono packs his suitcase.

Hence, the context of bilateral ties in the foreseeable future will be determined more by Abbott'€™s policies than the two leaders'€™ personalities.

In other words, what Abbott shows Indonesia in the next 12 months defines the nature of relations for the coming half decade. The new Indonesian president in October next year will likely use Abbott'€™s first year as the base context for the bilateral outlook.

One cannot be faulted for thinking it may be a '€œHoward part two government'€. Abbott reveres his former boss with biblical admiration. In his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott described Howard as a prime minister with '€œthe patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon'€.

But the milieus in which these two men find themselves are distinct.

Both Abbott and Julie Bishop, who is expected to be appointed foreign minister, have underscored the narrative of an '€œAsia first'€ foreign policy and Indonesia as Australia'€™s '€œmost important'€ relationship.

There is certainly supporting evidence of this intent. During an Australia-Indonesian civil society dialogue in March, Bishop impressed and wooed the Indonesian delegation by investing two whole days to attend the meeting. Learning, discussing and hearing various points of view, which will equip her well as top diplomat.

This may placate concerns over the new government'€™s posture, which will still be '€œWestern'€ '€” read: '€œWashington and London'€ '€” but not diminish them altogether as Abbott still sees the US as '€œAustralia'€™s greatest ally'€.

Abbott'€™s polarizing style, especially on issues of the Middle East and boat people, is something many in Jakarta may find unpalatable.

Visiting Australian troops in Afghanistan in December, he described the country as one that '€œhas been pretty short on decency for a very long time'€.

In Washington last year, he likened Israel to Australia as '€œa liberal, pluralist democracy'€. With little reference to the fate of Palestinians or the occupied territories he pledged: '€œWhen Israel is fighting for its very life ['€¦] Australians are Israelis. We are all Israelis in those circumstances'€.

Putting style aside, there is likely to be greater emphasis on Australian foreign policy by the diplomats, rather than the prime minister'€™s office. Bishop said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would become the driver of foreign policy.

Economic diplomacy has also been identified as a priority: trade partnerships with Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea top the agenda.

But herein lies the concern. A bilateral relationship that is pragmatic is welcome, but one that is too business oriented diminishes the '€œneighborly'€ part of the partnership.

Indonesians do not want Australia to adopt a shopkeeper mentality, especially in the exploitation of developmental assistance and security relationships, which will be aimed at increasing economic security in Australia.

A foreign police anchored in an '€œaid for trade'€ platform that can be perceived as support for private-sector development mechanisms, may ultimately also serve as subsidies for Australian businesses overseas.

It is especially startling to hear the u-turn in narrative in Canberra as the new government seems disinterested in hastening the millennium goal target of foreign aid at 0.5 percent of gross national income.

The future looks bleak for qualitative aid and empowerment programs, as funds could be redirected to such things as the Enterprise Challenge Fund and infrastructure development.

'€œThere is a problem with Ausaid,'€ Bishop has been quoted as saying.

Australia earmarked some A$5.7 billion a year to foreign aid programs. The new administration is expected cut a total A$4.5 billion over the next four or five years.

We would do well to just hope that Australian aid to Indonesia, which currently stands at about A$540 million, would not be significantly reduced, let alone an upturn over the coming years.

Abbott and Bishop have insisted that their approach to Jakarta will be founded on a '€œno surprises policy'€.

Well, even the darkest thunderstorms here are predictable. But it is still awful to be in one anyways.