To say former prime minister Tony Abbott was unpopular in Indonesia is quite the understatement.
When it comes to our closest Asian neighbour, his scorecard was an archipelago of gaffes and stand-offs, all of which led to increased tensions between the two countries.
During Abbott’s bumpy stewardship, WikiLeaks revealed Canberra spied on the wife of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; consternation about Indonesia’s role in the passage of asylum seekers continued to grow; and Indonesia executed Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran despite desperate pleas from Canberra. The latter led to the withdrawal of the Australian ambassador.
All this resulted in what The Jakarta Post writer Meidyatama Suryodiningrat called in a September 16 op-ed, “an attitude of benign neglect from Indonesia’s foreign policy community”.
“Good riddance, Abbott,” he wrote.
Senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute Dave McRae says Abbott was seen as an “unhelpful contributor” to bilateral relations.
He says although Australians shouldn’t expect the Indonesian media to cover the leadership change as the Australian press might if the same thing happened there, the response to Malcolm Turnbull’s installation in the top job has been generally favourable so far.
That’s certainly the case. Indonesian news outlets have variously described the new PM as “refreshing”, a “maverick” and “revolutionary”.
Most importantly, he’s different. “In contrast to the quite conservative Abbott, Turnbull is known as a more revolutionary figure,” Indonesian news organisation Kompas wrote (in Indonesian) in an article the day after the latest spill.
Indonesian news agencies agree the biggest change affecting their country will be Turnbull’s style of communication.
“It appears the pattern and character of PM Turnbull’s communication will be different from Abbott’s,” wrote Ahmad Khoirul Umam (in Indonesian) for news organisation Kompas on October 1.
Umam cites Abbott’s reluctance to apologise for the surreptitious surveillance, and his invocation of the aid Australia sent to Indonesia after the Aceh tsunami as a reason why Chan and Sukumaran should be granted clemency, as examples of bungled communication.
On the other hand, Suryodiningrat calls Turnbull’s handling of the Chan-Sukumaran situation “touching”.
“It was the narrative that he used that endeared him in comparison to Abbott,” he wrote of the new PM’s appearance on Q&A in April.
Perhaps his warm reception has something to do with similarities between him and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Brisbane-based journalist for The Jakarta Post Harry Bhaskara notes both are former businessmen who came to politics late in life.
Meanwhile, a Courier-Mail editorial from last July said Widodo’s victory was “a watershed moment”.
“Mr Widodo is the archetype of what is possible in a modern and open democracy that respects the rule of law and embraces both free enterprise and free speech,” it said.
But support for Turnbull’s ascension to the top job does not go unqualified.
Suryodiningrat offers a “cautious welcome” to the new PM, while Umam says Turnbull is faced with the same tough task that confronts any leader of the two countries: overcoming the collective memory of past troubles.
There is also some apprehension about Turnbull’s continued support for the Abbott government’s asylum seeker policy.
“If he sticks to his words, Indonesia will have to brace for the possibility of more boat people controversies,” Bhaskara wrote.
Spokesperson for the Indonesian embassy in Canberra Ida Bimantara says this is an issue in need of bilateral co-operation. “Indonesia and Australia have a mutual interest to work together with other countries in the region to provide a sustainable solution to this humanitarian crisis,” he said via email.
The “maverick” Turnbull also supports same-sex marriage, which Barnaby Joyce has said could cause consternation in countries like Indonesia, with a 90% Muslim population.
But Bimantara doesn’t agree.
“The issue of same-sex marriage is still under debate here in Australia. And whatever the decision of the Australia people, the Indonesian government will respect it,” he said.
McRae also doesn’t expect marriage equality to cause friction, saying it didn’t affect Indonesian-American relations when the US Supreme Court ruled in its favour earlier this year.
He also says it’s too soon to tell just how Turnbull will affect Australia’s interactions with Indonesia.
“What we haven’t seen yet are the instances that crop up when the two countries’ interests aren’t aligned,” he said.
“That’s when you’ll see the real test.”