By Mungo MacCallum
Once more our prime minister has hit the international headlines, and once more for all the wrong reasons.
It is not unusual for Tony Abbott to find himself an object of ridicule – it happens regularly in Australia, and his gaffes have made him a favourite target of irreverent talk shows overseas, especially in the United States and Britain.
But to find himself all over the Indonesian internet as an object of scorn and contempt is neither new nor nice. And more worryingly, it is not good-humoured satire, the kind you can laugh off.
The campaign against Abbott, and by extension the country he governs, is based on anger and resentment. A sign seen in Jakarta last week, ‘Australians needs a prime minister not a Shylock and drug dealer’s cousin’, reveals the depth of the outrage at Abbott’s latest blooper.
And of course it was a blooper, a well-intentioned but reckless overstepping of the kind Abbott has made his personal trade mark as prime minister and even before then.
He was genuinely trying to help the cause of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran as the apparently remorseless path towards their executions draws ever nearer. So what went wrong?
First, it was a bit of what Abbott would no doubt call plain speaking: Australia could not just ignore the impending executions and if they went ahead, Australia would feel ‘grievously let down’.
The clear implications was that there would be consequences; and while everyone, but especially the Indonesians, were considering that and wondering just what Abbott had in mind, he went back to the airwaves to note that Australia had given a billion dollars in tsunami aid just a few years ago, and perhaps Indonesia might like to reciprocate the good will.
It may not have been meant as a threat, but it surely sounded like one, and Jakarta, always sensitive when it comes to what it still sees as formerly colonial powers, took it as such. Its government let fly: Indonesia was a proud and sovereign nation, and did not take kindly to threats.
Julie Bishop rushed to the phone and tried to pacify the vice president, Jusuf Kalla, to assure him that there was no link between the aid and the executions, but while apparently mollified, he reportedly called the statement ‘most unhelpful’, which it obviously was, and particularly to the hapless prisoners of Kerobokan gaol. What little hope of reprieve they still entertained were dashed yet again.
President Joko Widodo reiterated that the executions would go ahead, and advisers urged that the process should take place as soon as possible to end the pleas for clemency.
And the backlash against what was seen as arrogance and bullying from Abbott began, first in Aceh, on the island most affected by the tsunami, and then spreading across the vast and populous archipelago.
It is not clear who started the movement to collect loose change to pay Abbott back for his aid, but it had a devastating impact, and if the authorities did not actually encourage it, they certainly condoned it.
Some of Abbott’s remaining advocates are trying to claim that it was what Australians wanted to hear from their leader and bugger the Indonesians and the drug smugglers too; shoot the lot of them and cancel the aid, and bad luck to them. Abbott and Bishop were just playing good cop, bad cop in order to get an outcome.
Which , if it were true (which it wasn’t) was precisely the problem: good cop, bad cop, is the game you play in the interrogation room when you are trying to browbeat a suspect into confessing to a crime. It is not the game you play when you are trying to elicit sympathy from a proud and fiercely independent head of state whose own interests are considerably more compelling than your own.
Australia is regularly seen as an object of suspicion in Jakarta, with Abbott as a particular focus; he has never really been forgiven for his high-handed dismissal of the bugging of the phone of the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife and associates, nor of the stubborn refusal to countenance Indonesia’s resistance to turning back the boats of asylum seekers and the inadvertent breaches of Indonesia’s maritime borders that resulted.
And before then, of course, there had been an underlying distrust engendered by Julia Gillard’s unilateral suspension of the cattle trade and, more lastingly, John Howard’s intervention in East Timor. Abbott should have been super cautious; but old habits die hard.
Bishop could have told him to tread carefully; she and her department had been tirelessly and quietly working through diplomatic channels, massaging potential sympathisers and concentrating on the main game: saving the fugitives from death.
It may not have worked, but it was the last, best chance. Had Abbott warned them of his intentions, they would have tried to jump on him.
But instead, he impetuously barged ahead, providing Widodo and his fellow hardliners the excuse – if they need one – to ignore Australia’s pleas from now on.
Indonesian law, it appears, will take its course. Even if Abbott were to apologise publicly to the aggrieved Widodo, as Widodo has reportedly requested, although there is absolutely no sign that he is likely to get it, it would be too little and too late.
Another captain’s call, and given the issue involved, a deadly serious one. In the end, the relationship between the two countries will once again have to be papered over; the link, if only one of geography, is too important for open conflict.
But that will be of little comfort to Chan and Sukumaran and their families, friends and supporters, and not much for the Liberal Party either.
Abbott is already on probation in the party room, and this, in the very first week of good government, has not been a promising start. Once again, Abbott has tried to shirt-front the opposition in the hope that it may be persuaded to back down. Once again, he has been dismissed with derision.
While he is getting over it, he might ponder just what he will do with quite a lot of Indonesian coins which are on their way. Perhaps me might like to purchase a simple guide to Javanese culture; or, failing that, a Bahasa version of How to Win Friends and Influence People.