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Jan 24, 2014

Dangerous brinkmanship with Indonesia could have disastrous consequences

Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are playing a dangerous game with Indonesia. Unless someone starts taking responsibility Australia could find itself in a mess, says former diplomat Bruce Haigh.

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Australia has a problem. Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison have taken Australia down a path from which there are only two outcomes: further aggression and confrontation with Indonesia or retreat.

Retreat would amount to a domestic political defeat for Abbott and Morrison but lead to an improvement in relations with Indonesia. Further aggression would continue to undermine the relationship with Indonesia and might spread into the region.

Abbott has displayed and deployed characteristics at odds with his image as a conservative intellectual, and he appears not to care about nurturing the delicate relationship with Indonesia. The diplomatic subtleties and nuances required to maintain and build that relationship have been sacrificed to his flawed domestic agenda of turning back the boats.

Morrison has proven a willing attack dog. His anger and downright nastiness were on public display on Wednesday, in his defence of Australian navy personnel alleged to have burnt the hands of asylum seekers.

His failure to address the media on issues of national concern is an affront to Australian democracy. Operational requirements are said to be the basis for this, but that requirement has been allowed to slide when faced with allegations that test his veracity.

Morrison and the head of the taskforce overseeing so-called border security, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, took us for fools when they sold the line that Australian navy vessels had inadvertently crossed into Indonesia waters, and the Indonesians are right to question the honesty of that claim. It was also a slur against the navy and naval personnel, backed by Campbell.

The navy is in possession of some very sophisticated equipment to make sure vessels know exactly where they are at any moment in time, and the training of sea-going personnel, particularly navigators, is rigorous. Australian sailors are unlikely to be impressed with Morrison’s clumsy defence.

Morrison appears to be running the show,with Campbell put in the position to give Defence Force legitimacy to a crass political undertaking. It is Morrison’s head that pops up in the media to defend the less salubrious aspects of the illegal operation being run against asylum seekers when they become public knowledge in Australia from Indonesian sources.

“In defending the navy from charges of torture, Morrison sought, in the crudest of terms, to demonise asylum seekers.”

In defending the navy from charges of torture, Morrison sought, in the crudest of terms, to demonise asylum seekers. It reminded me of when I listened to white South African politicians demonise black South Africans in order to deflect criticism from what apartheid was imposing.

Yesterday, Julie Bishop said the Australian government would co-operate with the Indonesian investigation into allegations that Australian navy personnel had engaged in acts of torture against asylum seekers under their protection. Until then Australia was in danger of tacitly accusing the Indonesian government of lying in terms of the information and allegations that have come out thus far. And in light of the public statements made so far in defence of naval personnel by Abbott, Morrison, Bishop and navy chief Ray Griggs prior to any findings of fact, how will they react to adverse findings?

Abbott recently said in Sri Lanka that under certain circumstances torture was justified. He has also said that he would accept the word of an Australian sailor over that of a person who sought to enter Australia illegally (he was referring to asylum seekers).

But sailors and soldiers under pressure can behave badly, particularly if leadership is weak or lacking. Griggs will not have forgotten the unedifying farce of the inquiries into the sinking of HMAS Voyager by HMAS Melbourne. He will be aware of issues of sexual harassment in the navy dating back 50 years and covered up until recent times, and he will be aware of conduct unbecoming on HMAS Ballarat last year.

Griggs hasn’t long to go in the job, so surely he should consider retiring with pride. He needs to find some moral courage. A starting point might be to assert himself over the operational use of his vessels before the Indonesians start firing at them.

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, needs to place distance between himself and Abbott. Together with opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs Tanya Plibersek, he should visit Indonesia and seek to repair the damage being wrought by Morrison and Abbott. They might begin by addressing the issue of the joint processing of refugees.

Indonesia would genuinely welcome good relations with Australia, but despite their inane statements that all is well with the relationship, Abbott and Morison are doing everything to wreck it.

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47 thoughts on “Dangerous brinkmanship with Indonesia could have disastrous consequences

  1. Boerwar

    [Sir Dick
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Scott.
    Get real, you Abbott haters.]

    I don’t hate him. I despise his behaviour.

    [Our current relationship with Indonesia is nothing like a disaster.]

    Who said it was a disaster?

    It would be true to say that the bilateral relationship is at its lowest ebb since Timor. It would also be true to say that it is getting worse by the week. It would also be true that this is the first time since the days of Sukarno that Indonesia is openly restructuring its military into ready response groups involving warplanes and warships and nominating Australia as the most likely target. It is also the first time in half a century that Indonesia is openly advising all and sundry that Indonesian strike aircraft can reach Australia. It is also reasonably, according to Australian businessmen, that little or no new business is being done by Australians in Indonesia. It is also highly likely that the recent trend of improvement in positive attitudes by the Indonesian population more generally has been reversed by the actions of the Abbott Government.

    All this with an Australian-friendly president.

    [If you want a disaster, consider the impact of banning the live cattle trade by which the Australian Government, without any consultation with Indonesia, denied a supply of animal protein to maybe 1 million Indonesians in the hinterlands of Java. That mattered a lot…]

    It is a pity that the live trade industry did not self-manage and self-regulate its end-to-end supply chain. Industry risk management was obviously atrocious. There was no way any government (except subsequently the Abbott Government which freely continues to send Australian animals into terrible conditions) was going to continue to send live cattle into absolutely atrocious conditions of cruelty. The industry had no idea where Australian cattle were going or into what conditions. The Labor Government to its credit, came to the aid of the industry and insisted on industry standards which included end-to-end tracking of Australian livestock. Here is a hint for you: if the RSPCA gets upset at the serial cruelties being inflicted to Australian livestock under the aegis of Joyce, then the political game is over. The RSPCA will kill it off.

    That said, it is true that the sudden ban created severe diplomatic damage. However the Indonesian ambassador was not recalled then. At all. The currend Indonesian ambassador has been back in Indonesia for two months now… a clear signal of the degree of relationship rot that the Abbott Government has infliced.

    [.. whereas a border infringement, which we ourselves flagged, has led only to a bit of ritualised posturing.]

    There were several border infringements by several ships.

    There are standing policies (boat buyback and paying Indonesians to spy on Indonesias in Indonesia). There was the absolutely incompetent response to the spying allegations. You remember Abbott explained that it was for Indonesia’s own good. There was Bishop’s serial misrepresentations of the content of her meetings with Natalegawa. He responded by releasing a transcript which demonstrated that she was lying.

    As for the ‘ritualised posturings’, these now include the distinct possibility that some airhead naval commander from either side takes a pot shot at, or rams, his opposite number.

    [Our interactions with Indonesia run very deep, not only in politics but in respect to our respective armed forces, our police forces, terrorist intelligence, our trade institutions.]

    They are actually quite shallow. Our trade is a fraction of what it could be an it should be. Almost no-one in Australia completes Year 12 Indonesian any more. Our military cooperation is at a dead halt since SBY stopped it. Intelligence cooperation has also beens stalled pending the agreement that Bishop is supposed to be negotiating with Natalegawa. New business developments have come to a halt. The Indonesians would be well aware of the islamophobes that Abbott has in his Party Room and the islamophobes he hangs out with in the MSM.

    [We do not have a disaster with Indonesia.]

    Repeating this strawman does not make it any less silly than the first time it was put up.

    [We just have issues that matter deeply to us and we, politely but firmly, are dealing with them.]

    There is absolutely no politeness at all about the public utterances that Abbott, Morrison and Bishop have directed at the Indonesians. Many of them can best be characterised as being patronising, arrogant and ignorant -which is certainly the way the Indonesians perceive them. SBY has written that he feels ‘betrayed’ by Abbott.

    [The Indonesians are signalling displeasure in a measured way and that fair enough.]

    So, they did not shoot when foreign warships entered their territory without authorization? Next time we might just not be so lucky.

    [After we have stopped the boats (and we will) with whole matter will go away.]

    You seem to have a total ignorance of the history, current status, and possible future consequences of the current pattern of behaviour of the Abbott Government. ‘The whole matter will go away’… all by itself, hey?

    [It is not a disaster.]

    This is the third time you have erected this strawman. It still isn’t working.

  2. Sir Dick

    Thank you Boerwar for your truly epic response to my musings.
    I disagree with most of what you said but you clearly have the intelligence to argue rationally, to articulate your position, to deal with issues rather than personalities and to present a case I can respect (if not agree with).

    It was Sarah Hanson Young, speaking on ABC News, who called the situation with Indonesia a disaster. (May I break my own rule about personal comments and say that I can really, really do without that lady appearing night after night on the ABC News, giving vent to her opinions).

    I was Export Manager in a BHP related company some years ago and visited Indonesia many times on business. From my experience, I simply do not buy the current hysteria – I think our ties are very strong and the present “crisis” will blow over. I think talk of focussing radar and scrambling fighters is political posturing and the notion that Indonesian warships might start shooting at us is absurd. You obviously don’t agree and that’s fair enough.

    I am now a cattle farmer and I think the principles of human cattle management, namely calmness and control, have been around for 10,0000 years and are much the same throughout the world. I do not believe the images of cattle mistreatment in provincial Indonesian abattoirs shown by the ABC reflects “normal” process – the appalling images were obviously the result of a breakdown in process. The workers in those abattoirs were in great danger and that alone convinces me that 900,000 head of cattle a year are not being handled that way. A process like that is totally unsustainable. Bad stuff sometimes happens (I have been head-butted out of my own yards), but that does not mean the process aberrations we saw in those videos are normal.
    The banning of the live cattle trade put hundreds of thousands of Indonesian farmers and workers out of work because the Australian cattle leaving Australia are in “store” condition and are fattened in the Indonesian hinterland. We denied a million Indonesians in the hinterland access to animal protein (they are too far inland for a fish diet and there is no processed meat because there is no refrigeration – that’s why there are hundreds of small abattoirs since the meat of the slaughtered animals must be consumed within 3 days). You are absolutely right that the Australian cattle industry needed to do much more than it was doing.
    But I repeat my assertion that the banning of the live cattle trade was a disaster for Indonesia and that, by comparison, a few border incursions at sea are of minor consequence. I have reread your views and I do see your point but I disagree with the intensity of your position.

    Tony Abbot has been unfailingly polite in his diplomacy. He has been calm and dignified. So has SBY. I agree both Morrison and Natalegawa have lifted the rhetoric at times but, on the whole, our diplomatic interactions have been measured. I say again that we are politely but firmly putting our position and our resolve in front of the Indonesians – they are politely but firmly expressing their displeasure. I do not think the sky is going to fall in and I do think we will stop the boats, after which all this will blow over. Your view is different and that OK with me.

    Thank you once again, Boerwar, for your truly stimulating response.

  3. John64

    “only two outcomes: further aggression and confrontation with Indonesia or retreat.”

    You left out the third one: Indonesia backs down on its rhetoric.

    “flawed domestic agenda of turning back the boats”

    Not sure how you can say it’s flawed. After being told for years that “boats can’t be turned back”… surprise, surprise, boats ARE being turned back.

    “His failure to address the media on issues of national concern is an affront to Australian democracy”

    This is only a failure to people who /don’t want/ boats turned back, which last I checked, was everyone who voted Green at the last election (given Labor were promising to be just as tough).

    You may have been asleep at the time but last year we had en election. Tony Abbott said “You vote for me, and I turn the boats back”.

    And then he won the election.

    And then he turned the boats back.

    That’s Democracy. Not your narrowed interpretation of it.

    “Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, took us for fools when they sold the line that Australian navy vessels had inadvertently crossed into Indonesia waters”

    I always smile with amusement whenever someone who has never been in command of a Navy vessel, is happy to tell us all how easy it is.

    Next thing you know, you’ll be telling us that a modern Navy vessel would never shoot down a commercial airliner by mistaking it for a fighter jet. You know, because of advanced equipment and such.

    Iran Air Flight 655 must’ve been deliberate, aye?

    “illegal operation being run against asylum seekers”

    Now you’re being just as bad as all those people who call asylum seekers “illegal immigrants”! If this is illegal, take it to court.

    “But sailors and soldiers under pressure can behave badly”

    Woah, wait a minute. Is this from the same guy who just a few paragraphs earlier was complaining about the “slur against navy and naval personnel”?

    “Griggs will not have forgotten the unedifying farce of the inquiries into the sinking of HMAS Voyager by HMAS Melbourne”

    Yeap. That one must’ve been deliberate too. I mean after-all, the Navy “is in possession of some very sophisticated equipment to make sure vessels know exactly where they are at any moment in time, and the training of sea-going personnel, particularly navigators, is rigorous.”

    So how in heck do you hit one big boat with another one then?

    “before the Indonesians start firing at them”

    The Indonesians won’t fire at them for 2 reasons:

    1. They’d have to have boats in the region.

    2. It would be stupid.

    Remember: It’s Indonesian vessels (with Indonesian crew) that are crossing into Australian waters here that’s causing the problem in the first place.

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