New Boots, But Still the Same Old Walk

By Richard Laidlaw
For The Bali Times
Dropping in to Bali for yet another gabfest and presenting President Yudhoyono with a nice pair of RM Williams boots is a continuance of sensible policy.
UNGASAN, Bali ~ Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd likes to be seen as an activist leader, so much so that at home he has come to be known as Kevin 24/7. He is scarcely less active abroad and indeed has been criticized for spending too much time out of the country, on projects that before he jetted into Bali on his latest Indonesian visit on December 10 – for the Bali Democracy Forum – he was said to have stung Australian taxpayers for travel costs of around $500,000, not counting the cost of his air force transport and associated support.

These are uncertain and trying economic times for the world. Rational critics of Rudd’s style and preference for appearing on the global stage see nothing wrong with his present emphasis. That is, after all, chiefly where his and Australia’s problems are focused. Rising unemployment, a sinking currency, a submerged stock market and tough financial circumstances at home make domestic headlines, but are rather less than globally critical.

Besides, Australia’s fate in terms of the global financial catastrophe rests solely in the capacity of the world trading system to sustain the country’s export-oriented economy. Rudd needs to be out there arguing Australia’s case and acting – as he likes to – as an honest broker with fresh ideas.

Much is made – not least by Rudd – of the “difference” between Australia under his leadership and that of the country under the former prime minister, John Howard, who had 11 years at the helm. In fact the difference is minimal: only the rhetoric has been ratcheted up. Withdrawing combat troops from Iraq (all 500 of them!) and signing Kyoto were hardly revolutionary. Under Rudd, Australia has pressed further than Howard was prepared to in terms of designing new regional and global economic arrangements, particularly in relation to China. But again the difference is one of emphasis – it is common sense, no doubt about that, and welcome for it – than substance. It is a difference more apparent in the political bells and whistles than in forward movement.

And this in fact is what Rudd wanted. For all his rhetoric, Rudd is a Labor leader but no radical. He probably would not have been elected to office in November 2007 if he was, despite Howard (a Liberal) clinging on to personal office too long, irritating many Australians with his fusty approach to political renewal, making the wrong choices with workplace law and nailing his and his country’s colors to wrong mast (George W. Bush’s disastrous vision of how to advance the American interest).

The central facts of Australian foreign and national security policy – the element of its national affairs that inevitably most interests Indonesia – have not changed in any basic way since, well, forever. As a western nation remote from the locus of other western societies, Australia must always seek to build better relationships with its natural allies and concentrate on being relevant to contemporary events lest in the crush of those events it is ignored or forgotten.

This is the crucial point highlighted in a paper released by a leading Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, to mark the Rudd government’s first anniversary and written by the institute’s director, Allan Gyngell, himself no stranger to issues of high policy in his homeland.

From the beginning of European settlement in Australia, the central dilemma for its foreign policy has always been how best to protect the security and economic interests of a small population occupying a rich continent, located far from its key markets and major security partners. The early American revolutionaries feared foreign entanglements; Australia’s primal fear was of abandonment.

As a result, isolationism has never been a significant strand in Australian thinking. The country has not seen its security as best served by withdrawing from the world. This has generated in Australian foreign policy a practical and activist bent, a belief that it is preferable to try to shape outcomes in the world rather than wait to be shaped by them. It has encouraged an enthusiasm for foreign policy initiatives, at a pace which can sometimes exhaust its neighbors: “initiative mongering” is a national pastime.

It has also driven Australian participation in the broader military activities of its allies – from the Boer War to Iraq – in the belief that this represented downpayment on an insurance policy (the most powerful metaphor in Australian national security policy) against a time it might need protection itself.

For Indonesia, then, the essential lesson to draw from the Rudd government in Canberra is that, for Australia, the relationship with Jakarta not only remains essential but also something that must continuously be built upon. That has been a fundamental truth ever since Australia – under a Labor government – supported Indonesian independence in 1945 (it took some flak from its allies to do that).

In the “Asian Century,” Australia will continue to support Indonesia’s capacity to build for its own future, a policy in no way different – bar the rhetoric – from that properly followed for years and particularly energetically by the former Howard regime. In short, dropping in to Bali for yet another gabfest and presenting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a nice pair of RM Williams boots (Australian iconography at its best!) is a continuance of sensible policy. And it’s great PR.

Rudd may be seeking to rewrite Australia’s narrative – and to build new players such as China and India into it, primarily from a trade perspective – but in all other essentials it’s the same old story.

The Lowy Institute paper is available at

Richard Laidlaw is a former Australian journalist and political adviser and is now based in Bali.

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