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The Jakarta Post
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The tyranny of parochialism

  • William Maley

    The Jakarta Post

Canberra | Wed, November 27, 2013 | 11:13 am

In December 2010, an article in the Australian press drew on Wikileaks to report that barely a year earlier, a '€œkey Liberal Party strategist'€ had told US diplomats that the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat from Indonesia was '€œfantastic'€ for Australia'€™s opposition Liberal-National coalition, and that '€œthe more boats that come the better'€.

Doubtless the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra reported this to Jakarta. In the wake of the current crisis in Australia-Indonesia relations, '€œmore boats'€ might be just what the coalition parties, now in government, should expect, and the irony should be lost on no one. But in this shemozzle, there is a deeper lesson as well.

To an astonishing degree, Australia'€™s approach to Indonesia continues to be driven by Australian domestic politics, and if Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is to develop any kind of reputation for statesmanship, he will need to change '€” dramatically '€” his ways of thinking about the world.

To understand how we have come to this point, it is necessary to go back quite some way. In 1996, the Liberal Party was forced to withdraw the endorsement of one of its candidates for that year'€™s national election, Pauline Hanson, after she made some racist anti-Asian remarks.

Despite her loss of party endorsement, she managed to win the seat of Oxley in Australia'€™s House of Representatives, and then set up a political party named One Nation that echoed her virulent opinions.

In the Queensland state election in June 1998, One Nation secured 22.68 percent of the vote, and in the Australian national election held later that year, it won 8.43 percent of the vote for the House of Representatives, and over a million votes in the Senate election.

The 1998 election marked the end of Hanson'€™s political career. She lost her seat, and shortly after, the One Nation party tore itself apart in an internecine struggle. Yet in the very process of doing so, it left a terrible legacy for Australian politics. Those voters who had abandoned the major parties in 1998 to support One Nation came to be seen as the '€œswinging voters'€ whom it was necessary to snare when the 2001 election came around.

Liberal Prime Minister John Howard seized the issue of asylum seekers and boats to capture the One Nation constituency, and in doing so, took his own party to the far right of the political spectrum, where previous Liberal leaders such as Sir Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser had notably declined to move.

Tony Abbott is a direct descendant, intellectually, of this particular disposition, and it is no surprise that his successful campaign for election in 2013 was based on simple slogans designed to appeal to the Right. Central among the slogans was a commitment to '€œstop the boats'€.

It was clear for months before the 2013 election that this rhetoric was causing mounting irritation to leaders in Jakarta. Quizzed about it during the Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur in June, the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, sent a very clear signal: '€œWe don'€™t have a place in our region for unilateralism. That'€™s one thing we can do without. We need rules and norms'€.

The minister'€™s tone was polite, but the message was unmistakable. Opposition leader Abbott chose to ignore it, almost certainly because his preoccupation was exclusively with winning the looming Australian election.

Unfortunately, it is one thing to think that after winning an election, you can afford to ignore the former government; it is another thing entirely to think that you can afford to ignore the concerns of a neighboring sovereign state with a much larger population than your own and a sophisticated and sensitive political leadership. It only took one more straw to break the camel'€™s back.

When news broke that Australian intelligence agencies had boasted of their capacity to intercept the mobile phone communications of the Indonesian President and his wife, Prime Minister Abbott followed a long-standing practice of neither confirming nor denying claims about intelligence, but with a choice of words that to say the least was maladroit: as the Indonesian foreign minister promptly pointed out, to express '€œregret'€ at '€œembarrassment'€ caused to the Indonesian President was to suggest that the President had done something about which he needed to feel embarrassed, when it was Australia'€™s conduct that was in the dock.

But here again, the weight of Australian domestic politics should not be underestimated. Prime Minister Abbott'€™s declining to apologize may also have reflected his attentiveness to the views of the right-wing constituency on which he continues to rely.

His immigration minister, Scott Morrison, reportedly had urged the Opposition '€œShadow Cabinet'€ in December 2010 to capitalize on the electorate'€™s growing concerns about '€œMuslim immigration'€, '€œMuslims in Australia'€ and the '€œinability of Muslim migrants to integrate'€, and when Morrison in November 2013 stated that there was '€œno real rhyme or reason'€ to Indonesia'€™s policy on the forcible return of boats, he pandered to the stereotype that Indonesians are incapable of thinking rationally.

An even more recent manifestation of this pandering to rednecks was to be found in the vulgar message on Twitter of the Liberal Party'€™s oafish opinion pollster, Mark Textor: '€œApology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970s Pilipino porn star and has ethics to match'€.

Marty, a graduate of the London School of Economics and Cambridge with a doctorate from The Australian National University, was probably being generous when he described the contribution of this fool as '€œdesperate'€.

Yet when given the opportunity in the House of Representatives publicly to cut his party'€™s ties to Textor'€™s firm, Abbott notably declined to do so.

Where all this will end remains unclear. It will probably take an armada of asylum seeker boats to drive home to the likes of Abbott and Morrison that Indonesia cannot be treated simply as a large Nauru, full of people in need of Australian tutelage.

In the meantime, we should all spare a thought for the career diplomats, especially the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia and the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta, who will have to reassemble the bilateral relationship. Fortunately, every cloud has a silver lining. Textor has terminated his Twitter account, citing '€œdeath threats'€. They probably came from professional Australian diplomats.

The writer is director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at The Australian National University.

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