Two starkly different men are contesting the Indonesian presidential election on July 9, and their third debate on Sunday night gave us the best glimpse yet of how they perceive Australia.
On the upside, it’s clear that both ex-army strongman Prabowo Subianto and Jakarta governor Joko Widodo want a good and consistent relationship with their neighbour. Neither is proposing a radically different strategy to achieve that.
But some signs are extremely concerning. Since Tony Abbott came to power and trampled on Indonesian sensibilities with his response to boat arrivals and phone tapping, it’s clear that, across the Indonesian political spectrum, Australia is now viewed as a problem — not only as troublesome, but also as somehow irrational.
That is not a small thing.
The Australia question came up early in the debate when the moderator, academic Hikmahanto Juwana, led a question about asylum seekers, asking, without naming Australia, if there was “any room for military diplomacy”.
Each candidate emphasised dialogue, but did it clearly in the context of territorial sovereignty.
“We will not surrender one centimetre of territory … our national strength is the key,” said Prabowo. Joko talked about dialogue then added, rather lamely, “we can bring them to international courts if necessary”.
Later in the debate, though, Joko himself surprised pundits by raising Australia specifically.
“What’s wrong with the Indonesia-Australia relationship, that often it’s up and down, hot and cold?” he asked of Prabowo.
“Honestly, I think the problem is Australia’s, not ours”, Prabowo responded, suggesting the Australian people or government had “some kind of suspicion or phobia towards [Indonesia]".
Joko emphasised the “lack of trust”, suggesting it was because Australia viewed Indonesia as a “weakling” which lacked “dignity”.
Prabowo talked about increasing Indonesia’s military strength but said he wanted to “assure Australia that we are not a threat”. Joko emphasised forging deeper ties using words that could have come out of the mouths of Australia’s diplomats in Jakarta.
What should we make of all this?
First, encouragingly, neither candidate is seeking to use Australia’s unpopularity as a campaign tool. Whoever replaces Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (sometimes described as the best friend Australia has had in Indonesia) will approach the relationship with good will.
The worry is that Australia is seen by both sides as an irritant, a problem — but more than that, as phobic, untrusting, unpredictable and ultimately inexplicable.
Any Australian attempt to improve business links to this fast-growing neighbour will be heavily reliant on a friendly investment environment. Both candidates, but Prabowo particularly, are campaigning on versions of economic nationalism. It’s not a context in which Australia can afford to be seen as problematic.
When Tony Abbott visited Indonesia recently he lavished praise on outgoing president Yudhoyono: he was “proud and thrilled and honoured” to have known him, and would be “very pleased and proud and honoured” to call him a friend in future.
But the puzzlement over Australia’s attitude now being expressed across Indonesia’s political spectrum shows how deep has been the damage to the relationship.
Much deeper than a few florid prime ministerial words to an outgoing president could hope to fix.
The story Both sides in Indonesia's presidential race see Australia as a problem first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.