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Jakarta Post

Turnbull prime ministership bodes well for Oz-RI ties

  • Harry Bhaskara

    The Jakarta Post

Brisbane   /   Tue, September 22, 2015   /  04:33 pm

What impact will a Malcolm Turnbull leadership have on Australia-Indonesia relations? For now, the former communications minister, who edged out his boss Tony Abbott in a party coup on the night of Sept. 14, will have his hands full with pressing domestic issues.

Focus on regional issues will likely come after the new prime minister has tackled issues dear to the hearts of the Australian public such as same-sex marriage and renewable energy.

Next on his bucket list will be a new cabinet line-up and reconciling the now divided Liberal Party and the Liberal National coalition, a tough job for a leader who is often seen by his critics as '€œdismissive to others, arrogant and having a short span of attention'€.

But the asylum seeker issue did come out during Turnbull'€™s first Question Time, a day after he was elected the new leader of the ruling Liberal Party. It was clear that he would not make any policy change in the near future.

Turnbull, a more right centrist conservative than Abbott, still favors the existing border protection policy of boat turn-backs and regional processing.

'€œIn no small part because we have been successful in securing our borders, we can play our part in helping resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq,'€ he told parliament.

As Turnbull spoke, the more than 2,000 asylum seekers detained offshore continued to demand freedom.

If he sticks to his words, Indonesia will have to brace for the possibility of more boat people controversies.

Other features of Turnbull'€™s leadership profile do not necessarily paint a pessimistic outlook. The former journalist turned lawyer, banker and successful businessman is seen as more attractive and a better communicator than his predecessor. This is a breath of fresh air for both countries who had recalled their respective ambassadors at the beginning and toward the end of Abbott'€™s two-year rule.

Abbott'€™s brouhaha over the Bali Nine duo that gave rise to the '€œAceh coin'€ movement in Indonesia after Abbott linked it to the past tsunami aid is a case in point. In contrast, Turnbull and President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo are both former businessmen who entered politics about a decade ago. They are both nationalistic. Turnbull led a failed movement for Australia to become a republic in 1999 whereas Jokowi is known as a huge fan of Indonesia'€™s founding president, Sukarno.

This nationalistic trait can either be a boon or a liability, depending on how the two leaders handle it.

In tandem with Julie Bishop, who is staying on board, the prospects of Australia-Indonesia relations under Turnbull look good.

The foreign minister, who proved instrumental in alleviating a huge number of crises during Abbot'€™s government, will remain a valuable asset in the relationship. Bishop, who remained Liberal Party deputy leader following Sept. 14, has known Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi for a long time.

'€œWe are good friends,'€ she told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Jakarta last year. '€œWe will work very positively and productively together. We will both be acting to the best interests of our respective countries and collaborating closely on a whole range of issues,'€ she said.

They were not empty words. Predicting Turnbull'€™s policies on Indonesia is a risky undertaking at this stage for they can only be inferred from his past utterings on Asia where '€œIndonesia'€ was rarely mentioned, if at all.

Turnbull is seen as having a better grasp of geopolitics and geoeconomics than his predecessor. He has more progressive views on multiculturalism and climate change and is known as favoring a stronger Asia-Pacific focus in Australia'€™s foreign policy.

Abbot, a champion of the monarchy and a friend of the US, had his mind and utterings in Asia-Pacific, but not his heart.

Turnbull appears to have put the region in his heart, judging from his recorded thoughts.

'€œAustralia is well placed to capitalize on this new wave of innovation and disruption emerging from China. However, we all have a role fostering a culture of innovation, which must be driven by the private sector, educational institutions and government.

'€œIn the innovation space, government must lead the way with clear and detailed education, innovation and technology policies that are funded adequately. Industry, too, must embrace disruptive change and most importantly continue to enhance its understanding and relationship with China and its economy,'€ he commented last month on public sector leaders'€™ website The Mandarin.

Indonesia under Jokowi is also acutely aware of its position in rising Asia and has openly embraced opportunities to work with other countries.

A meeting of minds for cooperation on a broader range of sectors between Australia and Indonesia seems to be in the offing. Turnbull will still befriend America, like any other Australian leader, but he is acutely aware of the weaknesses of a high-wage country like Australia in the wake of Asia'€™s rise.

He is seen as having a more lenient stance against the rise of China, preferring to see it as an opportunity for innovation and creativity and is more readily to accept the end of the domination of the Western world.

As it stands, the change of leadership in Australia brings with it optimism on improvement in the two-country relationship.

The writer is a journalist, based in Brisbane.

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