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The Jakarta Post
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Indonesia remains important for Australia under Abbott

  • Donny Syofyan

    The Jakarta Post

Padang, West Sumatra | Tue, September 10, 2013 | 10:55 am

Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott celebrated a landslide victory in Australia'€™s election last Saturday, ending six years of Labor Party government. In his election victory speech, he restated his campaign promises: in three years time the carbon tax would be gone, the asylum seeker boats would be stopped, the budget would be on track for surplus and the roads of the 21st century would be started.

Listening to his victory speech, along with his campaign, one might infer that Australia under Abbott leadership would be more tough on non-Australians, particularly Asians, following his unremitting commitment to adopting a military approach to stem the flow of boat people, mostly Asians, including using the navy to turn around asylum seekers and expanding Labor'€™s plan to deport all boat people to remote Pacific islands.

Indonesia, to a serious degree, will be hit with the step since thousands of would-be refugees stage perilous sea journeys each year from Indonesia in a desperate attempt to reach Australia.

This is not to mention the promised A$4.5 billion cuts to foreign aid to pay for infrastructure projects, which would be detrimental for education in Indonesia.

Despite the pessimistic future profile of Australia and Indonesia relations, Indonesia will remain important in the Abbott premiership.

On many occasions, Abbott has asserted that his focus will be on Asia over the US and Eurpoean Union, saying that his top travel priority as prime minister would be Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea before the traditional visits to Washington and London.

This statement is likely not simply a matter of political courtesy. Rather, it strongly confirms the very nature of Abbott'€™s foreign relations and policy. It is apparent that Abbot explores every avenue to avoid the mistake of former Australian prime minister and his political mentor, John Howard, who declared that he was America'€™s '€œdeputy sheriff'€ in Pacific region.

This is particularly true as Abbott further restated that the Australia'€™s Liberal Party is now entering one of the golden ages of 11 years of engagement with Asia.

In view of Abbott'€™s first overseas trip to Jakarta, Indonesian government must best prime for bilateral talk under the principle of trust and mutual benefit.

While Prime Minister Abbott will certainly ask for cooperation with Indonesia to handle the asylum seeker issue, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono needs to push Abbott for continued collaboration for education programs. Both leaders have to come to terms that the efforts to stop the flow of asylum seekers call for bilateral cooperation.

Such a common platform is crucial for Indonesia since Abbott was notorious for his previous $440 million scheme, including a capped government buy-back plan for vessels as well as stipends for Indonesian guardians in 100 villages to provide information to Australia and bounty payments for information leading to successful smuggling prosecutions.

This plan '€” to use Indonesian villagers as agents '€” has been viewed as bruising Indonesians, making out that everything can be overcome by giving money to Indonesia.

Outrage in Indonesia over the plan makes sense because Indonesia is not Australia'€™s colony with people available to be '€œbought'€ for another country'€™s interest.

The asylum seeker issue is a much vexed issue. A satisfactory solution to the matter seems further away than ever and will never be reached until Indonesia is part of the solution. The only way to stop the boats ethically is to negotiate a regional agreement with Indonesia.

This will certainly take a considerable period of time, a good check book and a strong commitment to detailed open diplomatic work instead of the megaphone and backroom diplomacy.

The absence of mutual benefit standards in response to the asylum seeker issue will certainly put Indonesia and Australia ties at stake.

Education is also central to both countries. There is fear that Abbott'€™s measure to slash the foreign aid budget will conduce to Indonesia'€™s poor education quality owing to the fact that the biggest single portion of Australia'€™s aid spending in Indonesia goes to education.

Yet it is an exaggeration to say that Indonesia'€™s quality education improvement is greatly bound to Australia'€™s aid in the light of Indonesia'€™s position as it'€™s largest aid recipient.

With the Australian government shifting the foreign aid budget to infrastructure projects at home, it is high time that cooperation in education and training between the two countries are cushioned by people-to-people relations.

Cultural diplomacy and educational cooperation between the West Sumatra city of Bukittinggi and various cities in Australia are splendid examples. The visit of Greater Geraldton City mayor Ian Carpenter to Bukittinggi on Sept. 10-13 will be testament to intensified relations between Bukittinggi and Australia in terms of culture and education.

Though it is a sign of government to government based, such profound cultural and educational cooperation is actually driven by the people-to-people approach.

Thanks to Gusrizal, an avid advocate for teaching Indonesian language studies at Australian high schools and universities for years, Bukittinggi and Australia cooperation is progressing at the community level.

People-to-people contact hold key to future Indonesia and Australia relations. Counting much on foreign aid is tricky and risky.

The government needs to be independent from foreign aid since it has become an instrument whereby foreign countries, not necessarily Australia, can ask for favorable policies as apparent in the controversy surrounding President Yudhoyono'€™s decision to grant five years clemency to Schapelle Corby, an Australian who was convicted of drug smuggling in Indonesia.


The writer, a graduate of the University of Canberra, Australia, is a lecturer in the Faculty of Cultural Sciences at Andalas University, Padang.