Geoff Miller is a former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.
Prime Minister Rudd's decision to go ahead with his predecessor's planned visit to Indonesia this week, and his remarks about the possible effect of Opposition asylum-seeker policies on the Australia-Indonesia relationship, has led to a storm of discussion and comment. Yet a recent visit to Indonesia indicates that it will not be easy to get the Indonesian Government to give the issue the importance it has assumed here. Nor will effective action be easy to bring about.
I visited Indonesia in April as a member of a study tour run by the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. We had a number of days of talks in Jakarta with government, media and NGO representatives. The Australia-Indonesia relationship was described by Indonesian interlocutors as 'very good', 'strong and stable' and 'not on a roller-coaster', although the point was made that more needed to be done on people-to-people relationships.
Some of the recent 'difficult issues' in the relationship, such as Schapelle Corby and the others in Kerobokan Prison, and the interruption to the live cattle trade, were mentioned by one person we spoke to, but only as examples of topics of transitory interest. The asylum-seeker question was not raised with us by any Indonesian interlocutor.
That fact leads to some consideration of Indonesia's circumstances.
Indonesia is a big and varied country with 250 million people, great ethnic and linguistic diversity, and thousands of islands, growing at a rate of 6.8% a year and inevitably engaged closely with its neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore and The Philippines. It has many pressing internal issues, including counter-terrorism, communal violence, drugs, corruption (including in the area of law enforcement), bedding down its democratic processes (it has general and presidential elections next year), and strengthening reform of the military and finding a proper role for it in society.
As part of its relationships with its neighbours, the movement of people, legally and illegally, is common. One estimate we heard of the number of Indonesians working illegally in Malaysia was 250,000. We heard considerably higher estimates as well, making the number of asylum-seekers wanting to make their way to Australia via Indonesia small in Indonesian terms.
It was also stressed to us that Indonesian parliamentarians and others attach great importance to Indonesia's national sovereignty, both in regard to its international position generally and in regard to Australia particularly. They had in mind our role in regard to East Timor and fears, however fanciful, about our intentions in regard to Papua and West Papua.
There is another aspect. Although Indonesia is a country rich in resources, and there is plenty of evidence of economic dynamism, the fiscal position of the public sector is not strong (although SBY's recent decision to cut fuel subsidies will certainly help).
This is reflected among other things in public sector wages and salaries. The formal starting salary for a judge, for example, is $300 per month. A former Indonesian Defence Minister was quoted as saying that only 30-50% of the costs of the military come from the budget. It was stated that every Army and Police district still has to raise part of its own funds. Such circumstances can only make easier the task of getting local authorities to turn a blind eye to, for example, the movements of a group of asylum-seekers.
The foregoing does not mean that Prime Minister Rudd cannot expect any cooperation on asylum seekers from President Yudhoyono, who is well disposed to Australia and has worked closely with Rudd in the past, for example on G20 matters.
But it does indicate that he, and we, should not set expectations too high. It may also mean that in addressing this stubborn problem, with its sometimes tragic humanitarian consequences, we should emphasise other possible channels such as regional cooperation and, in my view, accessible and effective processing at source, rather than relying too much on what is possible bilaterally between Australia and Indonesia.