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Gillard to return with greater appreciation of foreign affairs

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For a political leader who honestly but unwisely admitted that foreign policy is not her passion, Julia Gillard is now learning that how she conducts herself on the world – or regional – stage – is central to her overall performance as a prime minister. How Australia’s relationship is conducted with Indonesia is not just important to Australia’s external concerns, but directly impacts on domestic political issues.

Front and centre of Ms Gillard’s discussions with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was, unsurprisingly, Indonesia’s potential role in a regional refugee processing centre. Notice the subtle name change? We may be seeing a move away from an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor to something located elsewhere, if not more widely dispersed.

It is already clear that East Timor will not go down the processing centre path without Indonesia’s support, and probably that of Malaysia, given they are the major transit points for refugees.  In discussions with Ms Gillard, President Yudhoyono was luke-warm on the idea, agreeing that there was a need for a regional solution but saying it would need to go to the  regional ministerial meeting in Bali early next year. Whatever happens on this issue will not be quick.

Positively, the two leaders agreed to increase cooperation on the wider people-smuggling issue and on other aspects of transnational crime. For better or worse – probably worse, given the lowest common denominator approach to the subject over the past decade – the issue of people smuggling runs high on the Australian domestic political agenda and it is one area that Ms Gillard will need to master if she is to remain in office beyond the current term.

For what is an issue that involves the countries from which people are fleeing, there was also greater emphasis on including countries of origin in helping to stop people smuggling. In the case of Sri Lanka, the fleeing Tamils are a persecuted minority, regardless of whether they actively supported the Tamil Tigers war for a separate state.

Talks with the governments in Iraq and more particularly Afghanistan are not likely to produce real outcomes, given that war still rages in both countries and the governments appear to be part of the problem rather than the solution. That Australia participated in one war and still does so in another, helping to produce the conditions from which people seek to flee, also limits the logic of its claim to stem the flow of refugees.

More positively, there was some progress in discussions between the two leaders on closer economic relations between Australia and Indonesia, which intends to see Indonesia brought back to being inside Australia’s top ten trading partners, following its dive after Indonesia’s economy collapsed in the late 1990s.  That, as former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was fond of saying, provides the ballast for the relationship.

President Yudhoyono also jumped in ahead of what he thought might be Ms Gillard’s comments on human rights issue, in particular the recent evidence of torture in West Papua. Instead, President Yudhoyono, a cautious if genuine reformist, announced that Indonesia was already conducting an investigation into the affair and that Australia should not pressure Indonesia on the issue.

Diplomatically, Ms Gillard supported President Yudhoyono’s statement that the issue was being investigated and it seems the two did discuss wider human rights issues. The real issue in this area is, however, that Indonesia’s military and police continue to be corrupt and brutal, despite president Yudhoyono’s best efforts.

Australia is in the compromised position of providing training and support to both institutions, which many in the government are uneasy about. Ms Gillard confirmed during her visit that ties to the Indonesian police would be strengthened. Unfortunately, the claim that Australian training would enhance respect for human rights, which has been used as a justification since the 1980s, has proven to be inaccurate, admitted to since even by Gareth Evans, who originated the claim.

Also on the agenda was an appeal for clemency for jailed Australian drug courier Shapelle Corby. President Yudhoyono has the power of clemency, which he has used judiciously. However, drug smuggling is treated very seriously in Indonesia and the President cannot afford to be seen to be favouring Australia.

Similarly, any clemency for the Bali Nine drug smugglers, especially those who have been sentenced to death, must await their final appeals. But in a country in which balance of perceptions is important, President Yudhoyono will have to be seen to be favouring Indonesians over Australians, assuming he is inclined to commute the death sentence imposed on three of the drug couriers.

The appeals process may be successful, base on new legal arguments, commuting sentences of prisoners is an accepted part of Indonesia’s process, usually tied to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. However, if President Yudhoyono refuses to intervene on the grounds that he is trying to support the much troubled rule of law in Indonesia, this is likely to strain relations between Australia and Indonesia.

No-one rationally doubts that a good relationship between Australia and Indonesia is to the benefit of both countries and Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been steady for the last six years, almost entirely due to the reformist, democratic character of President Yudhoyono. Ms Gillard will have learned, however, on this visit to Jakarta, that she cannot take foreign affairs for granted and that handling one of the historically most vexed relationships is tricky even when Australia’s counterpart is generally well disposed.

Ms Gillard will have returned from her regional visits, to Indonesia in particular, with a new respect for of the importance of foreign affairs. She will also return with a new appreciation of the difficulty faced by political leaders in getting the domestic political agendas of other countries to bend to that which might suit Australia.

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