Let’s Not Confuse Public Utterance for Public Policy

By Richard Laidlaw

STATE visits are carefully scripted events. They are the icing on the cake of a bilateral relationship, the tip of the iceberg of a substantial and complex weight of interaction. The popular media – and sometimes those elements of the media that really ought to think about what they choose to publish – is no place to conduct international relations.

Last week’s visit to Australia by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is an exemplar of this theory. The president addressed the Australian parliament: his speech was workmanlike, essentially positive, and basically good public relations, as all such speeches should be. They are an opportunity to present a public face to bolster the substantial private dealings that go on between national leaders. But they almost never canvass the detail of a bilateral relationship or discuss the deep and interwoven nature of official contact.

For this reason it is unhelpful for veteran observers of (and past participants in) the Australian relationship with Indonesia to fall into the trap of populist commentary. Hugh White, an Australian academic whose scholarship in defence matters is beyond reproach, was one such victim of the reflected spotlight effect during Yudhoyono’s visit. He was reported as saying Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was easier when Indonesia was a dictatorship.

Australian interest has always lain in cooperation with its northern neighbour.

In a sense that’s correct: when there’s just one point of view to consider, and no need to take account of any others, several layers of complexity are absent. But this is because dictators never represent their countries – though they may conflate their own interests and those of the nation. “L’Etat, c’est Moi” is a general delusion.

White also criticised Australian policy towards Indonesia as essentially crass, saying it emphasised populist (and essentially negative) elements of the relationship and actually achieved very little. His thinking goes far deeper than that. But being selectively reported is the penalty that attaches to shouting while the bandwagon passes by. You are both right and wrong.

It’s clear – just for instructive example – that in the 1990s former Australian prime minister Paul Keating and former foreign minister Gareth Evans achieved a level of working relationship with president Suharto that fed all three prideful egos. The fall, again in all three cases, followed not long after. Politics, like nature, has an unforgiving bent; the common weal always turns, eventually.

It fell on those three principally through the collapse of Indonesian and Australian policy in East Timor. The illegality of the 1975 invasion and the self-serving acquiescence of Australia (and other nations) over it finally resulted in catharsis. The primary fault lay then – in 1975 – with Portugal, which after 400 years of Iberian indolence in the territory ran away rather than face the moral obligations it had acquired in relation to the Timorese people.

The struggle of the East Timorese for freedom from Indonesian control over the quarter century that followed the 1975 invasion finally ended after the United Nations sanctioned the use of military means to replace the Indonesian apparatus in the territory in 1999. Indonesia withdrew – a courageous decision of then president Habibie – in the face of Australian-led international pressure. That was, at the time, a low point in relations between Jakarta and Canberra. History will view it differently, as a crucial – and crucially, positive – turning point.

Courage was the key on both sides of the argument. It is doubtful the world would have acted as it did in East Timor in 1999 without the strong Australian leadership shown at the time. Another president – not Habibie – might have rashly drawn Indonesia into a showdown at least as damaging (and unnecessary) as Confrontation in the 1960s.

Throughout Indonesia’s history as a modern state, the Australian interest has always lain in cooperation with its northern neighbour. Too many people have forgotten – or have never known – that the independence struggle in the years immediately after World War II was significantly assisted by the Australians (then as now committed members of the Western alliance) refusing to allow their ports to be used by the Dutch – and British in the early stages of the conflict: remember Surabaya – to support efforts to re-establish control over the Netherlands East Indies.

Today the relationship is much deeper, the product of policy and effort on both sides over the six decades of Indonesia’s independence. The politics of the media age creates the need for soundbites and daily headlines. But this is merely reflective: little glints of light on the tip of the iceberg.

It may be the case, as Hugh White and others would assert, that agreements to fight people smuggling, honorary awards of national decorations and all the paraphernalia of the modern public relations state are essentially symbolic and side issues. But when you have a complex relationship to nurture and manage, and the ignorant in full cry (the democratic deficit we all live with), it is better to provide a few loaves and the odd circus and to work quietly, away from the mob, on the real business of international relationships.

Richard Laidlaw is a retired Australian journalist and political adviser. He lives in Bali.

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