Indonesian alliance hardly warming up
Relations between Australia and Indonesia are “getting stronger all the time” and it’s just some media outfits “promoting discord” and saying otherwise, Tony Abbott proclaimed this week, defending his “by hook or by crook” approach to stopping boats full of asylum seekers.
Er, but what about this week’s poll by the Lowy Institute, which found Australian sentiment towards Indonesia had fallen to its lowest point in eight years in February-March, which was two months ahead of the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Concern that Indonesia was not doing enough to stop people-smuggling and Islamist extremism were the highest concerns. But 76 per cent of respondents agreed that Australian prime ministers should work harder to develop personal relationships with their Indonesian counterparts.
Meanwhile, the Canberra political mill’s focus has been on pinning down the astonishing claims that an official aboard an Australian customs or navy patrol ship handed $US30,000 to the six Indonesian crewmen of an asylum-seeker boat to persuade them to turn around. For a typical fisherman, like most of the crew, a $5000 gift would be like a lottery win. Why will more not line up to be “turned back”?
There was a feeble diversion from the government, planted in The Australian, of course, that under Labor some cash had been paid by intelligence agents inside Indonesia to penetrate and disrupt people-smuggling syndicates. Not quite the same thing, and commendable if true.
What’s been largely unremarked upon is the readiness of Indonesian leaders and officials to jump in with critical comments and demands for clarification. It’s hard to recall any comment such as those of Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir when the payoff reports first came in: “We have consistently said that the Australian government’s push-back policy is on a slippery slope,” he said. “If this latest incident is confirmed, this will be a new low for the way that the Australian government is handling this issue.” Since then we’ve had vice-president Jusuf Kalla saying it looks like “bribery” and the security ministry calling on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to withdraw the claim that the problem came from Indonesia’s unwillingness to control its borders. Things are very cool indeed.
Certainly, Indonesia didn’t improve the relationship with the executions, but nor has the crassness of Abbott’s insistence that “stopping the boats” is the paramount concern and that morality is on his side. Whoever replaces him will have a lot of ground to make up.
As we wait for details of a new law empowering the removal of citizenship from Australians deemed to be engaging in terrorism, the saga of Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society might be instructive.
Watson is the Canadian skipper of his organisation’s boats as they harass the Japanese whaling fleet on its annual “scientific research” in the Southern Ocean, the annual machismo exercise beloved of Tokyo’s conservatives. In 2012, he was arrested in Germany on warrants issued by Japan and Costa Rica, and his Canadian and United States passports seized and handed to the respective consulates. When released on bail, his US passport was returned but his Canadian passport was not. For the past three years he has been unable to re-enter his homeland, where he says his family roots go back 14 generations. Watson is convinced this derives from personal animus by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose world views are remarkably similar to Abbott’s.
In a mirror-image of Canberra, Harper’s Conservative government has just passed Bill C-51, a tough new anti-terrorism law giving new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service at home and abroad, allowing agencies including the tax office to exchange security information, and limiting disclosures to official monitors representing people in closed security hearings. The Liberal Party, the main opposition, waved it through, despite an outcry about lack of safeguards and that its language could apply to environmentalist and indigenous rights campaigners.
After a wave of publicity about Watson’s exile, which added to these concerns, Canada’s citizenship and immigration department this week said he could apply for a new passport. It said his old passport had been revoked in a “professional and non-partisan manner” based on rules applying to people facing charges, and denied Harper’s dislike of environmentalists had anything to do with it.
Could Harper’s love of tar sands and Abbott’s fervent advocacy of coal as good for Australia and good for the world turn out to be mortal sins, at least for a devout Catholic such as former seminarian Abbott, if not the evangelical Harper?
The question arises from Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, which the Vatican was due to publish on Thursday. In an early draft leaked to the Italian magazine l’Espresso, the Pope endorses the established majority view in science that the burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, and warns that the impact threatens the world’s poor. He calls for governments to apply policies that cut fossil fuel use and avoid “grave consequences for all of us”.
Francis also singles out climate-change deniers. “The attitudes that stand in the way of a solution, even among believers, range from negation of the problem, to indifference, to convenient resignation or blind faith in technical solutions,” the Pope declares.
Bring on the clowns. His comb-over may be silver now, but Donald Trump brings further colour to the line-up of hopefuls for the Republican candidacy next year, now numbering 12 and threatening to overload the debates Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV network will host ahead of the primaries.
However, Jeb Bush’s declaration he will run makes it more probable that the presidential election will be a dynastic fight, between the third Bush and the second Clinton. As much as they will be competing with each other in the final stretch, for the coming year or so the two leading candidates will be placating the more radical wings of their own parties.
Hillary Clinton is already doing that, to the discomfort of Barack Obama. She gave her support to Democrat congress members who held up legislation to give the president “fast-track” authority to conclude the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with 11 other countries, including Australia.
The TPP is the weightiest element of the US “pivot” to Asia, and a key part of the Obama “legacy” along with the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare (facing a critical test in the US Supreme Court’s imminent decision on a challenge in the King v Burwell case).
Clinton has claimed authorship of the pivot, too, as secretary of state in Obama’s first term. But it may now be roadkill in her run for the White House.
Though it’s hedged with exclusions of some farm products and long phase-ins for tariff cuts, China’s free trade agreement signed with Australia on Wednesday has meanwhile stolen a march.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Indonesian alliance hardly warming up". Subscribe here.