Rough waters and rocky boats, but we’ll get there

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

This side of the stretch of water over which Australian tourists fly in droves to exotic holiday destinations and considerably smaller numbers of asylum seekers travel in rickety boats in the opposite direction, frequently drowning in the process, it was never clear how the new Abbott government was going to get the Indonesians to stamp out people smuggling.

There was little reason for optimism that the Indonesians would suddenly grasp the point of ethics or convert en masse to international political morality; and far less that the supine government in Jakarta would energize itself sufficiently to stamp out official corruption and local criminality in the boat trade.

Presumably these points were made in Department of Foreign Affairs and other departmental briefings presented to the incoming government. But Abbott and crew had let their rhetoric trap them between the flames on the burning deck and any escape route over the side. They couldn’t listen to that advice since they had spent so long decrying it as profoundly inadvisable.

The result, short term, is the sort of embarrassment now being suffered by Abbott and his minister for beating off the boaters, Scott Morrison. Mr Morrison’s complaint on November 11 will fall on very deaf ears in Jakarta. He said of the Indonesians’ refusal to accept back a boat that had left Java but was still in Indonesian waters when it got into trouble (in other words an Indonesian responsibility) and had therefore to be taken to Christmas Island that “there’s no real rhyme or reason to it”.

Actually there is. The significant problem for Australia and its new government – which seeks to look tough and actually to be tough on unauthorized boats – is that from the Indonesian perspective it’s a problem for Canberra, not Jakarta. They reason that since the people on the boats want to get to Australia and Indonesia doesn’t want them in Indonesia, both their national interest (moving them on) and the asylum seekers’ interest (trying to get a better life) are best met by ignoring the problem.

It fits the standard matrix of Indonesian policy: do nothing unless someone else pays for it: Indonesia does not have police or customs vessels capable of effectively operating in the Indian Ocean south of Java and its navy has other priorities. Some materiel support would not go amiss.

But even if such equipment were suddenly to be gifted to the Indonesians there is very little hope that their approach – immoral, unethical and supine though it may be – will change any time soon.

The row over “spying” from the Australian embassy in Jakarta (spying is a pejorative term that guarantees a headline but is frequently misplaced) hasn’t helped. The Indonesians know as well as anyone else that everyone does what it is alleged the Australians have done, or would if they could. Embassies have always collected information that might, once sifted, analyzed and triple-checked, then become formal intelligence or, possibly, administrative action.

The dense, confusing multifaceted interfaces between what the media imagines is some cyber-capable James Bond doing what he (or she) does and later assessment that the information has actual value, are not the stuff of breathless media reporting. The whole affair is better illustrative of Australia’s record of becoming collateral damage in American imbroglios – in this case of the debris flying around from Edward Snowden’s national security leaks – than of what really matters, which is managing the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

Nonetheless, the allegations have further muddied the water in the Indonesian-Australian relationship. It is immaterial – certainly to the Indonesians, who are playing the harp and fiddle on this with remarkably energetic verve – that the activities chiefly complained about happened on Labor’s chaotic watch between 2007 and 2013. Abbott’s government is newly in power (parliament sat for the first time only this week) and the Indonesians are testing the water, in a manner of speaking.

There is no constituency in Indonesia for a truly humane response to asylum seekers. And there is merely a rump constituency in Australia that favours recasting policy in that direction. The election on Sept. 7 settled that. The coalition was elected with a thumping majority on a policy platform that included – stripping it to its offensive basics – keeping the bastards out. That’s the uncomfortable reality; it’s as uncomfortable for many coalition voters as for those who believe Abbott is the reincarnation of something truly terrible, or is possibly himself the creature from the black lagoon.

Both Australia and Indonesia face a pressing dilemma. It is not in either country’s interest to have a fractious argument over refugees (or anything else). But it is more difficult for Australia in the context of asylum seekers, because not only does a western liberal condition exist that properly insists that people shouldn’t be left to drown, but its government operates in conditions which make it actually as opposed to notionally subject to  parliamentary control. Someone might want to mention that to Mr Morrison some time.

Indonesia, in contrast, despite its significant democratic advance since the Suharto dictatorship ended in 1998, has a different system of government. Its system facilitates the president ignoring the assembly and the assembly ignoring the president. Further, it has values that – while perfectly genuine, culturally validated and actually remarkably responsive – are not those of a Westminster-derived parliamentary democracy.

There are many sides to the Australia-Indonesian relationship. They go far beyond the irritant of asylum seekers and the criminals who prey on them in Indonesia and elsewhere. For the most part they are positive: Queensland’s revitalized trade and investment profile and presence in Jakarta is just one example.

The Abbott government is still newly in office. It’s a fairly safe bet that it will work out a way to keep every element of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia on an even keel, consistent with its need for a differently nuanced political narrative.

A stream of Australian ministers have been in Indonesia since the change of government, including Prime Minister Abbott and (multiple times) Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Defence Minister David Johnson has also been here.

The really interesting time will be next year, when Indonesians elect their next president and national assembly. Several bets could be off then.

This commentary originally appeared on the Australian online journal On Line Opinion http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/.