Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s arrival in Canberra is just the third visit in 30 years by an Indonesian president to Australia. So how did John Howard celebrate this significant moment in the lives of the two nations this morning? By holding a Parliament House press conference and allowing a grand total of five questions.

After brief statements by both leaders, Howard called for “a couple of questions” each from gathered Indonesian and Australian journalists. For the record, the lucky Aussies were The PM’s favourite, Denis Shanahan from the Australian, Mark Forbes from The Age and The Financial Review’s Geoff Barker.

An SBS Indonesian language journalist and a Jakarta-based member of the travelling Indonesian reporter got to ask two questions of SBY.
Shanahan wanted to know Australia’s positon on the succession movements in Indonesia – Howard reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to respecting Indonesian sovereignty.

Mark Forbes asked if the leaders had discussed a non-aggression pact: SBY indicated they had not, but expressed diplomatic optimism about the two nations “pursuing a positive, constructive, cooperative” defence relationship.

Barker asked whether the men discussed Austraia’s claim on Indonesia’s maritime boundary – a thorny issue, given the ongoing Timor Sea resource dispute between Australia and East Timor. Howard replied with a brisk: “no”, which sent murmurs through the travelling Indonesian media pack, who couldn’t imagine such an impolite response from a national leader they call “Pappa President”.

Then Howard threw out a rhetorical call for “any more questions” and promptly turned on his heel and disappeared inside, SBY following his lead. It was the Indonesian president who came across as the statesman. He opened up by giving his consdolences to the families of the Australian Navy personnel killed in the Sea King crash – and announced medals for the nine dead and two injured. Then he fielded seriously and with respect the questions sent his way. All told, a perfunctory 10 minute performance by our PM, upstaged by his visitor.

Peter Fray

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