Let’s Talk About Indonesia
By Michael SafiNovember 21, 2013
Revelations on Monday that Australian spies successfully tapped the phone of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and those of his wife and inner circle, have unsurprisingly been the cause of much chatter in parliament.
But if “Indonesia” features heavily in Hansard transcripts this week, that’s not exceptional. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repeatedly assured our northern neighbour that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is “the single most important [one] we have”. And if mentions in parliament are any measure of a country’s importance in Australian eyes, then Hansard certainly bears out the PM’s sentiment.
Particularly since 2012, neither the United States, nor China, nor even a country so indelibly linked to Australia as New Zealand, has consumed parliament’s attention as Indonesia has.
PartyLines reveals a relationship that’s both intense — “Indonesia” being one of the few mainstay issues in Hansard, rating a mention almost every week since 2006 — and rocky, with one crisis after another sending “Indonesia” spiking in the charts.
The PartyLines tool crunches Hansard data from 2006 onwards. That year sees the first big “Indonesia” spike around August, when the then-Howard government tried to toughen up Australia’s asylum-seeker policy by ordering that all boat arrivals be processed offshore.
Earlier that year, 43 asylum seekers from the restive Indonesian province of West Papua made land in Australia, claiming, per the United Nations Refugee Convention, a “well-founded fear of persecution” by Indonesian authorities. The immigration department granted them temporary protection visas, to the dismay of Indonesia’s president Yudhoyono.
The incident was sufficiently serious that Indonesia’s ambassador was recalled to Jakarta, the last occasion on which such a drastic step was taken — until this week, that is.
In the 2006 crisis, meetings between PM Howard and his Indonesian counterpart eventually soothed tensions. Jakarta’s ambassador was re-installed in Canberra, and the tough new asylum-seeker processing laws were widely seen as Australia’s peace offering to Indonesia, designed as they were to deter West Papuans from making the journey in future.
Incidentally, transcripts from that week make for interesting reading (select week 32, 2006). Labor, the Greens, and Liberal moderates together mounted an impassioned defence of the right to seek asylum, and of Australia’s obligation to protect the world’s persecuted. Their protests succeeded in derailing the bill. Mandatory offshore processing was abandoned, considered unbearably inhumane – 2006 was a long time ago.
Asylum seekers also prompted the second — and largest — spike in mentions of “Indonesia” in PartyLines.
It occurs in November 2009, when a boat in distress carrying 78 asylum seekers was spotted by an Australian customs vessel, the Oceanic Viking – as we now know, it was around about this time, that Australian spies were tuning into Mr and Mrs Yudhoyono’s phone calls.
The boat, its passengers all Sri Lankan Tamils, was found drifting in Indonesia’s search-and-rescue zone; it was towed by the Oceanic Viking to a detention centre on the Indonesian island of Bintan. For a month, the Tamils refused to budge from the vessel, until November 17, the week “Indonesia” spiked in Hansard.
The third peak, more a high plateau, comes as a sustained, month-long surge in the Asian nation’s parliamentary mentions, which begins shortly after the ABC Four Corners program’s infamous May 2011 report, “A Bloody Business”. The program exposed the brutal treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesian slaughterhouses, and prompted the then-Gillard government to suspend live-cattle exports to the country.
Though the trade resumed after a month, relations with our northern neighbour took far longer to recover, with strict quotas imposed on Australian cattle exports to Indonesia for more than two years after the ban. Quotas were lifted in October. There are fears that this week’s spying revelations might lead to them again being tightened.
The two years since that episode see “Indonesia” feature consistently in parliamentary transcripts.
“Repair[ing] relations with Indonesia that have been so damaged by this government,” as then-opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop promised to do in August 2012, became a Coalition talking point in the lead-up to this year’s election. And as the numbers of asylum seekers spiked throughout 2012/13, so too did mentions of Indonesia surge and remain high.
The weeks to come are likely to see another spike, prompted by another crisis. The Coalition government, looking to rebuild its relationship with our neighbour, must hope that mentions of Indonesia in Hansard eventually taper, and stay down.
That’s because, if the pattern in PartyLines is any indication, when Australian politicians are talking about Indonesia, rarely is it for good reasons.