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Jakarta Post

Commentary: Forgetting Abbott, understanding Turnbull

  • Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

    The Jakarta Post

Hong kong   /   Wed, September 16, 2015   /  06:13 pm

Few Indonesians will know of Australia'€™s new prime minister. But one thing is sure, few will miss the departing Tony Abbott.

'€œDamaging'€ would most aptly describe Abbott'€™s two years of relations with Australia'€™s closest and largest neighbor to the north. It was a regrettable tenure that saw both countries needlessly withdraw their ambassadors.

Abbott'€™s cold response to the phone tapping of then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the president'€™s wife and Cabinet, the inhumane tow-back policy that disregarded cooperative measures with the Indonesian Navy and the pestering and uncouth reaction to Jakarta'€™s decision to execute convicted Australian drug traffickers, all ultimately led to an attitude of benign neglect by the Indonesian foreign policy community toward relations with Australia.

So it'€™s good riddance Abbott, and a cautious welcome to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

New beginnings always bring a degree of hope, or at the very least the benefit of the doubt. Even in such a situation when it involves a different leader who happens to be from the same party.

The Australian media is traditionally partisan, so initial descriptions of Turnbull range from those that paint him as an egotist and a non team player, to those that heap adulation on the man as being the next Bob Hawke, a leader who will uplift an economically depressed Australia.

From a layman'€™s vantage point in Jakarta, what we can probably say about Turnball is that he'€™s a maverick and a moderate member of the Liberal Party, frequently stepping out from party lines on his own volition to advocate for his brand of the peculiarly Australian form of egalitarianism, or what Australians sometimes refer to as '€œthe fair go'€.

Whether Turnbull'€™s historical record displays a man standing on principle or just one who is driven primarily by selfish opportunism is something that we will all soon learn more of in the coming months.

One thing is for sure, despite Abbott and Turnbull both being Sydneysiders, the new Prime Minister is most assuredly not Abbott.

The Oxford University Rhodes scholar was first noticed on the Indonesian radar when he led the failed republican movement that was defeated at the 1999 referendum.

He has not been adverse to switching on key issues such as altering his position in the wake of the landmark US Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage toward support for gay unions.

In June, as Abbott'€™s communication minister, Turnbull was one of a handful of Cabinet members to openly raise concerns about Abbott'€™s security crackdown that included plans to give the immigration minister the power to strip suspected radicals of dual Australian citizenship without clear due process.

Not much is on the record about Turnbull'€™s views on Southeast Asia, and in particular Indonesia. Turnbull, however, does seem to have a closer appreciation of Asia'€™s significance and Australia'€™s place in it. His position seems more akin to that of Labor'€™s Kevin Rudd than that of either Abbott or John Howard, his presumed Liberal allies.

'€œThe scarcest resource is not military might or dollars. It is the time and attention of our leaders,'€ Turnbull said in January this year on Australia'€™s future role in the region.

As Australian foreign affairs observer Hugh White noted earlier this year, one of the many ways Turnbull isn'€™t your average Australian politician is that he has thought quite deeply about foreign policy and strategic issues.

'€œUnlike Tony Abbott, he does not believe that, thanks to the Anglosphere, the world will continue to be run in English,'€ White wrote in the Lowy Interpreter in February.

Be it his own comprehension of Asia or the wisdom of his speech writers, Turnbull on various occasions has struck an impressive balance of a more refined knowledge of Asia and of the undercurrents affecting the region with the awareness to speak in a manner that is respectful and cautious, though always inflected by a hint of resolution for Australia'€™s own standpoint.

At the Lowy Institute Media Awards last year, Turnbull recounted an article about President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo'€™s methods of blusukan (impromptu visits) as a means of exposing the goings-on in ground level bureaucracies.

In February, Turnbull made a touching plea to President Jokowi on live Australian television to save the lives of two convicted Australian drug traffickers on death row. The point was not that he failed or succeeded, nor that he was defending his own countrymen. It was the narrative that he used that endeared him in comparison to Abbott.

'€œYes, they have committed very terrible crimes, yes, they knew the death penalty was there if they were caught and found guilty. But it is not weak to spare their lives,'€ he said on the popular Q&A program.

Turnbull has spoken of China and the emerging geostrategic shifts with an acute sense of hope and complexity.

Expect no major shift in Australia'€™s long held alliances, but expect a more sensible management of relationships with other major powers in the region.

In a foreign policy speech at the Lowy Institute while serving as opposition leader in 2009, Turnbull clearly pointed out that the US, which he referred to as '€œour great ally'€, would remain absolutely critical for Australia as far into the future as the eye could see.

Nevertheless, he also stressed that '€œit is not helpful either to exaggerate fears or expectations of China'€™s role as the coming world power'€.

Turnbull'€™s grasp of Asia is shaped, by his own admission, by his many years of business life pursuing mining ventures in China in places such as Hebei province.

'€œThese [pursuits] found me not so much in the big cities, but in provincial cities and towns, negotiating access to mineral resources,'€ Turnbull recalled.

There is a familiarity that imbues his speeches each time he speaks of China as he sprinkles Mandarin phrases and a touch of Confucian wisdom here and there.

At the time, he also criticized the strategic underpinnings of Australia'€™s Defense White Paper, contending that '€œit makes no sense for Australia in 2009 to base its long-term strategic policy on the highly contentious proposition that Australia is on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China.'€

There is a refreshing sense of realism underpinning Turnbull'€™s thinking. This includes his reasoning for ever-closer global economic integration as a means of ensuring that the shift in relative economic power and influence remains peaceful.

So far, there is much to be hopeful about in the turn of leadership in Australia. It remains to be seen if both countries can turn this potential into something more fruitful than what we have seen from the past two years.
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