Our Melbourne correspondent reports on Australian-Indonesian relations, and the Australian press loses interest in Papua New Guinea.
What to do if your opponents portray you as a misogynist? If you’re Tony Abbott you make generous paid parental leave part of your election campaign. Now he just needs to find the money to fund it.
When I first contacted Peter McCawley, a former economic adviser to the Indonesian government, to discuss Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia, he accidentally messed up my name in his reply. Almost instantly he shot back a message apologising.
“Those of us who work in Indonesia are rather sensitive about what words we use,” wrote McCawley, who is now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific. “If you make a mistake (as I did) then it’s best to apologise very fast.” The sentiment may be appropriate for email faux pas but, according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it’s not how Australia does diplomacy.
Since allegations emerged from National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden that Australia tapped the phone of the Indonesian head of state and his wife, Abbott has refused to provide an apology or explanation. His stance protects what he called “reasonable intelligence-gathering activities” but also feeds a growing perception of Australia as an arrogant force in the region. “There is, to some extent, a clash of political cultures,” says McCawley. “In Asia there’s more emphasis on respecting egos, while Australia is seen to be a bit pushy.”
This image of Australia is not helped by timing. The Abbott administration had already been criticised for its plan to turn intercepted maritime asylum seekers back into Indonesian waters when it felt safe to do so – a move some politicians in Jakarta have called “offensive” and “illegal”. Emeritus professor Joseph Camilleri, an international relations scholar at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, argues that this blinkered determination to secure its borders has further tarnished Australia’s reputation among its neighbours. “The implication is our sovereignty counts for more than your sovereignty,” says Camilleri. “Obviously this is not a good way of cultivating friends or influencing people.”
Abbott’s lack of tact throughout the spying scandal is in contrast to President Obama’s handling of allegations involving German chancellor Angela Merkel. A swift apology minimised the damage. As McCawley rightly asks: “If it’s good enough for the president of the US to take these actions, one wonders why Australia didn’t.”
Perhaps the answer lies in the Aussies’ mistaken sense of its own importance in the region. In the fallout of the spy scandal, Abbott said he considered the bilateral relationship with Indonesia as Australia’s most important. But is the feeling mutual? With Indonesia on track to become the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2030, it is gravitating towards major trading partners, of which Australia is not.
Annual trade between the pair is worth a fairly modest au$14.6bn (€9.7bn) and rumours that the scandal has fuelled anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia’s corporate world means that amount could shrink. “Australia may need to get used to a situation over time where it is understood that we are not as important as we sometimes think we are,” says McCawley. It’s a hard pill to swallow as Australia negotiates how to make its voice heard in the Asian Century.
- Talk the talk: Australia needs to reinvest in the teaching of Asian languages to finally shrug off the restrictions of being largely monolingual.
02 Save a seat: Effort should be made to bring Australia’s neighbours to the centre of the table during this year’s G20 summit in Brisbane.
- Squash the bugs: Adhering to an agreed protocol around the limits of intelligence gathering will help prevent another spying scandal.
Papua New Guinea appears fairly frequently in Australian news-papers but Aussies appear to have a growing apathy towards their former colony. Australian Associated Press has closed its 60-year-old bureau in Port Moresby (pictured) as a cost-cutting measure, leaving ABC’s Liam Fox as the last Australian correspondent stationed in the country. “PNG is a country in transition and is dealing with modernity at a rapid rate,” says Ilya Gridneff, a former PNG correspondent for AAP. “Sadly all this will be less likely to be told now.”