Tony Abbott charms Indonesia – and shows there’s no need to dread him

Gone is the boisterous opposition leader as Australia’s new PM impresses Jakarta as a deferential and careful neighbour

It was either the new face of Tony Abbott, or the familiar face of an Australian politician. Or perhaps it may be the naivety of Indonesians, most of whom still believe that in a democracy politicians actually carry out their most stringent campaign promises.

Either way, Abbott showed a different side on his high-profile visit to Indonesia on Monday. Gone was the boisterous opposition leader. In stepped a figure befitting a leader of the most advanced nation of the southern hemisphere. Infused with deference. Careful in his words, prudent in his mannerisms.

Abbott’s first visit to Jakarta since taking office achieved little in substantive results, yet accomplished much by way of reinforcing a closer working relationship with his counterpart, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

It was, in essence, a foundation-laying visit. Not a problem-solving one. Some critics have even suggested it was diplomatic appeasement.

From an Indonesian perspective, it was a welcomed visit. Without spectacle, bereft of controversy.

Given the narrative which catapulted the Liberals to power, there was some suspense – no matter how unfounded – that during his visit Abbott would coarsely push the issue of people smuggling in the same way he claimed he would push boats back into the sea.

But we have all learnt something. Abbott has learnt there is a difference between the boisterous style of campaign rhetoric and the delicacies of high government.

The Indonesian people have also learnt they have nothing to dread from the new Australian leader, who showed appropriate tact during his visit. That Abbott comes from a generation of Australian leaders who appreciate the complexities of the giant archipelago to their north, in the manner of Keating, Howard, Gillard and Rudd – leaders who fathom that a quiet suggestion goes farther than a flamboyant warning.

Take Rudd just two weeks before the 2007 election. He insisted a Labor government would turn the boats back and deter asylum seekers.

“You’d turn them back,” he said of boats approaching Australia.

But the realities he faced when in power were a stark contrast. He understood that it wasn’t a case of Indonesia being unco-operative on stopping boat people but whether it had the full capacity to undertake such a massive restriction in the world’s largest archipelago.

Both countries are as much victims of circumstance as they are liable for the unscrupulous nature of individuals. It does not help when a known people-smuggling ring leader tried in Perth and convicted for 12 years, but then released after just four years can now operate again in Indonesia.

Indonesians who have a limited understanding of Australia and its history are incredulous that a government would just simply turn back boats while 200 years earlier the birth of present-day Australia also began with a slew of arriving ships.

Common problems need common solutions. Especially since neither Indonesia nor Australia are the source of the problem. Neither wants to be burdened by this.

Indonesia is a transit point, Australian a destination. It is not as easy as shutting a door. Even if Abbott succeeded in building “fortress Australia”, it would only result in Indonesian islands becoming a “fencer” for unwanted illegals, which only aggravates Indonesia-Australia border security.

The most unfortunate aspect of the preoccupation with the boat people issue, was that little attention was paid to other aspects of the bilateral relationship during Abbott’s visit.

The well-being of 263m Indonesians and Australians shouldn’t rest on a singular issue of illegal migrants which neither country precipitated.

There was scant mention of the significance of Australia’s overseas development assistance, which the Abbott government intends to trim, nor any immediate highlight of environmental initiatives such as the future of carbon trading, which both countries championed in 2008.

Yes, there was an Australian trade delegation present, and mention of an Australian-Indonesia study centre. But they all seemed more like footnotes.

All these sunk under the bow of the people smuggling and news that dozens of boat people had drowned just a few days earlier.

Abbott must know by now that he takes charge at a crucial time in the future of the two nations. How he engages Indonesia now will define the nature of the relationship for the coming half decade.

• The writer is editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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