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Protecting our national interests?

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 5 May 2006

The increasingly undiplomatic row with Indonesia over West Papuan refugees casts a favourable light on neither Australian nor Indonesian diplomacy.

In my last column, also on this subject, I was cautiously hopeful. Both governments appeared to be walking the tightrope with caution and sensitivity. Unfortunately both now appear to have fallen off.

The Indonesians started well, making the inevitable disapproving noises but sending constructive signals that their displeasure had its limits. Australia promised a “review” of refugee processing procedures: the Indonesians thought that was constructive.


But then President Yudhoyono, no doubt yielding to pressure from his domestic nationalist constituency - he is, after all, an elected official and just like ours has to worry about getting re-elected - chose to make an inflammatory speech full of hyped-up rhetoric and emotional language. This was not merely an escalation of the dispute but, following immediately on Canberra’s conciliatory moves, a calculated insult. At this point the Indonesians fell off the tightrope.

The Howard Government then proceeded to do likewise. But whereas Jakarta abruptly veered off into nationalist rhetoric, Australia fell into its classic pattern of grovelling subservience. Clearly the “Jakarta lobby” in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is alive and well. Our “review” of refugee processing turned out not to be a diplomatic sop but a major capitulation, in all probability so abject as to violate our international obligations to protect genuine asylum seekers. In this context, Yudhoyono’s intemperate rhetoric is all the more ill-considered.

What we see in the behaviour of these two countries is that while Yudhoyono has apparently yielded to pressure from his nationalist hardliners, Howard has ignored his domestic constituency and yielded to Yudhoyono. This is more than the arrogance of a government with a majority in both Houses and a weak Opposition, thinking it can ignore public opinion. It is, indeed, yet again the insidious influence of those in the Canberra bureaucracy who favour good relations with Jakarta whatever the domestic political price or international humiliation.

This mindset is of course the same as that which gave us decades of grovelling to Indonesian regimes far less pleasant than that of President Yudhoyono, and which doomed the people of East Timor to subjugation, exploitation and routine atrocity. Like the political disease it is, it is passed from one generation of the security establishment to the next. Because the bureaucracy largely controls its own recruitment and promotions, anyone, however able, who will not support the established pro-Jakarta culture, is simply filtered out of the system. By the time one reaches levels where officials are directly advising ministers, the officials overwhelmingly give advice based on the same premise: good relations with Jakarta whatever the cost.

I would be the last to suggest that Australia should gratuitously insult the Indonesians, or do things which might destabilise the country. I have already expressed my support for Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, and I believe that supporting Indonesia’s still fragile transition to democracy and the rule of law should be a high foreign policy priority for Australia. The alternative, after all, is a return to authoritarian government in Jakarta, and possibly a bellicose, unconstructive and (in the worst case) radical Islamist regime there. Clearly this is not in the interests of either country.

But none of this means that Australia should compromise its core values, as we did (courtesy of the Jakarta lobby’s pernicious influence) for decades during the Suharto era. Nor does it imply that we should grovel even to a democratic Jakarta. As former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin has warned, “the more deferential we are, the more humiliated we will be”.


There are many apparently rude and arrogant people who need to be stood up to before they will show appropriate respect. Once stood up to, however, many of these will settle down in a productive and constructive relationship. In nearly 30 years working at Parliament House I met more than one such type, and ended up getting on very well with a number of them.

Apparently unhelpful moves like Yudhoyono’s recent speech should be seen as Indonesian testing of how far we are prepared to go. It is reasonable for Jakarta to expect us to support its sovereignty over West Papua. It is not reasonable, though, for it to expect us to hand over genuine refugees to the dubious mercies of the Indonesian security apparatus, or to reshape our laws and procedures so as to give Indonesia influence on how we treat asylum seekers.

It is noteworthy that in what one might have thought was an equally sensitive case - the defection last year of Chinese consular official Chen Yonglin bearing a mass of valuable intelligence - the Government also granted asylum. Were there tantrums from Beijing? Economic penalties? Recall of the Chinese Ambassador? No. Despite fears I expressed at the time, the Government did the right thing, and for its part Beijing accepted the fait accompli and moved on.

Clearly we do not have a “Beijing lobby” in DFAT in the same sense as we have a “Jakarta lobby”, and clearly the Chinese have a more mature understanding of how such issues should be handled than does Indonesia.

This pervasive, self-perpetuating pro-Jakarta mindset in our international relations bureaucracy - and even some parts of academia - has become a canker on the Australian body politic. Because it sets no realistic bounds on the price it is prepared to pay for good relations with Jakarta it represents a real and growing threat to the national interest.

Being a phenomenon of bureaucratic culture, the disease will not easily be eradicated. But until it is - and that will require the (figurative) shedding of a deal of bureaucratic blood - we have to face the fact that in the key area of Australian-Indonesian relations our own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cannot be trusted to protect our real national interests.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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