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Defence relations between Australia and Indonesia remain strong despite cooling diplomacy, as the AFP maintains it was unable to act before the Bali Nine were arrested abroad.

By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The AFP’s Bali Nine defence

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin speaks to the media on Monday, May 4..
Credit: AAP Image

Among the box-ironbark forest of central Victoria sits “Pucka” – the Puckapunyal army base. This week the base’s annual international marksmanship competition – the Australian Army Skill at Arms Meeting (AASAM) – presented some diplomatic thorns in Canberra.

Since 1987, every May some of the world’s deftest shooters descend upon Pucka. There are riflemen and snipers. They compete individually and in teams, in the day or at night. At the front of the teams’ dorms fly national flags. Recently, the Australian military has favoured the boxing kangaroo. In the first international AASAM, only Australia and New Zealand competed, but the competition swelled the following year to include Brunei, Britain, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the United States. China has competed recently, but invariably the best marksmen are from Indonesia.

For months the event has been listed with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), but as a little-known tournament it seems to have been overlooked. Indonesian shooters have competed for years now, and it was long established that they would again this week. Why wouldn’t they? They have a long history of winning.

The irony – and potential backlash – of permitting Indonesian marksmen into the country during a period of diplomatic sanctions, a week after the Bali executions, seems to have dawned rather late. Privately, the political and diplomatic view was to disallow the Indonesian army from participating – a response to complement the prime minister’s official declaration that, regarding Indonesia–Australia relations, it was not “business as usual”. The Australian army dissented. To deny the Indonesians would jeopardise the relationship and seriously dent their pride. It was unnecessarily inflammatory. The army either won that argument or it was simply too late to rescind the invitation. The Department of Defence confirmed an Indonesian team is competing in the games.

It is a predictable headache, for the government’s rhetoric of injury and punishment clashes with the multitude of international delegations and forums. In this atmosphere, arcane and harmless events suddenly become intensely sensitive – they can be perceived to question the sincerity of the prime minister’s pique. But the swirl of international relations continues, and must continue. This remains primarily a question of public relations.

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia, while often marked by mutual suspicion, is moderated more often by mutual interest. It is elastic. As Dr Dave McRae, an Indonesian expert at the University of Melbourne, explained to me: “I think there’s a dialectic between goodwill and resentment. But there’s a general ambition for stronger ties. This ambition is expressed abstractedly, but unfortunately short-term policies become prioritised. But regarding animosity, there is a predictable pattern of rows followed by reconnection. You have the serious row over the East Timor peacekeeping mission in ’99, there’s Schapelle Corby, the Papuan asylum seekers, the Oceanic Viking standoff in ’09, ban on live cattle, the boat turnbacks and the espionage revelations. But in the past there has also been greater intensified connection, certainly from 2011 to 2013. For instance, the annual leaders’ meeting. There are periodic rows and engagement.”

Tony Abbott’s domestic standing may profit from pugnacity, but longer-term relations are damaged if that pugnacity is anything other than theatrical. In private meetings during the past two weeks in Canberra, it was discussed that the withdrawal of Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia might last only a maximum of one month, and the ministerial sanction a maximum of two. These aren’t unequivocal positions, but it couldn’t really have ever been anything else. There is a summit being held here in June, and the Australian government is committed to including Indonesia in it. The elasticity of mutual interest will win out.

Insiders debate where the equilibrium lies: the point between Abbott’s desire for responses that mirror his condemnation of Indonesia, and his private acknowledgment of the importance – and inevitability – of restoring “business as usual”. The Australian army does not wish to offend their regional counterparts, while experts lament the crippling of long-term foreign policy, fallen prey to public relations. The government, then, conducts a drunken ballet – the contortions the result of clashing requirements of the world and its voters.

AFP rejects criticism

This week the Australian Federal Police (AFP) fronted the press about their involvement in the arrest of the Bali Nine. The long-promised executions of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan had finally happened, ultimately untroubled by appeals and international condemnation, and now Australians were drawing a line between the deaths and the federal police. The AFP, meanwhile, had long been quiet on the matter, believing that a detailed public conversation on their involvement might jeopardise the campaign for clemency.

The AFP may well have wished to disabuse the resulting suspicion and resentment, but they remained largely silent. Their restraint was interpreted as a dubious opacity. The AFP did provide testimony to the federal court, and was subject to a number of parliamentary inquiries. However, the prevailing cynical narrative was that the provision of intelligence to Indonesia on the traffickers came just three years after the Bali bombings, when co-operative anti-terror work was a priority, the AFP working more industriously with Indonesian counterparts to combat, among others, Jemaah Islamiyah. And so the Bali Nine were “shopped” – gifted to the Indonesians as a sign of good faith, a sort of diplomatic quid pro quo.

Certainly this was the opinion of the barrister Bob Myers, a family friend of Scott Rush – one of the convicted nine – who in 2005 tipped off the AFP about Rush’s possible involvement in drug trafficking in the hope they could intervene. “They have blood on their hands,” Myers has said of the federal police. “It will taint them forever.”

At an epic press conference this week, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin spoke directly to such criticism. “I also have an obligation to the men and women of the AFP to ensure that their welfare is well taken care of,” Colvin said sternly, “and public references to blood on our hands, public references to a cavalier approach, public references to shopping the Bali Nine in exchange for some conspiracy of a greater relationship, cartoons depicting the AFP as the firing squad or the Grim Reaper are not only misinformed and ill guided, they are, in my view, in very bad taste. Police naturally have thick skins. You wouldn’t be a police officer if you didn’t have a thick skin. But they also have friends and family who read and see those types of headlines, those types of comments, and are influenced by them.”

A recurring criticism of the federal police was the perceived cynicism in allowing the nine – or eight, as they thought they were then – to leave the country. But as Deputy Commissioner Mike Phelan said this week, the AFP simply did not have sufficient evidence to make an arrest. “The information that was available,” he said, “as opposed to evidence – and I want to make it quite clear there is a mile-and-a-half between information and evidence that was available – the AFP had absolutely no grounds to arrest any of the individuals at that particular time. There has been some commentary that perhaps we could’ve charged someone with conspiracy. That is absolutely false. If we had charged someone with conspiracy at that time, a first-year lawyer would’ve been able to walk at a first hearing. There was simply no evidence.”

The press conference failed to subdue all doubt in the media and the wider public. But away from the formalities, I sought a number of background briefings this week to probe the defensibility of the AFP’s position.

In discussions I’ve had with people experienced at making drug arrests at airports, it was firmly stated that arrest would have been made in Australia if there had been sufficient evidence. It was also believed that if there had been any evidence contradicting Phelan’s assertion, it would have leaked long ago. The AFP is vast, and a decade has elapsed since the decision.

Information sharing

Similarly, critics pointed to the fact that the nine could have been allowed to return to Australia where they could be arrested once in possession of narcotics. But this would rely upon either refusing to share information with Indonesia in the first place, potentially damaging the relationship if the AFP’s reticence was revealed, or pleading with Indonesian authorities to allow them to leave Denpasar, leaving open the possibility that the drugs could be hidden or passed on to others.

The AFP has not satisfactorily answered operational questions about these courses of action, and certainly both were in their power.

What were scraps of information for the AFP became, for the Indonesians, evidence – a surveillance operation was started, the suspects followed and filmed. The precariousness of this information sharing, however, was obvious to one AFP member and he left the taskforce in protest. “I can remember at least one occasion at the time,” Phelan said this week, “where a request was made by one of the investigators in Brisbane to come off the team because … as a result of the passing of information [he] was not comfortable with us dealing with a death penalty situation.”

The outcome, of course, was horrific. And so this week many wanted to see the AFP not only explain themselves but offer unsaturated contrition. The AFP observed the former, but not the latter, arguing instead for the difficult contingencies of their job. “If anybody thinks that over the last 10 years I haven’t agonised over this decision,” Phelan said, his jaw setting just a little firmer, his eyes misting ever so slightly, “then they don’t know me and they don’t know what it’s like to be, not only a senior law enforcement officer, but… whether you’re a constable and you have to make split decisions, or decisions at the moment, or indeed decisions when you have to have more information in front of you... These are difficult decisions.”

Colvin, meanwhile, was protecting his members. Where Abbott felt compelled to reflect public anguish, Colvin was assuredly doing the opposite. This wasn’t a public relations exercise because, as the AFP saw it, it was a statement of difficult truths. Now we have public funerals for Chan and Sukumaran and a shooting competition for armies. There’s nothing suspicious or sinister about this – just the strange, mournfully comic contradictions of diplomacy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Arresting defence". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.