australia-indonesia relations

The men and women who operate the levers of power in Indonesia know us far better than we know them. 

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Cabinet contains several members with tertiary degrees earned by living and studying in Australia. Among the President's trusted advisers are men who studied economics and diplomacy at Australia's most prestigious universities. His closest colleague trained as a pilot instructor in the skies over East Sale, country Victoria. Of the few women in the Cabinet, one worked as a checkout chick at Dickson Woolies in suburban Canberra.

Many powerful and influential Indonesians have long and fond memories of their salad days on Australian campuses. And that is to say nothing of those whose children are among the 18,000 young Indonesians now studying in our tertiary institutions.

There is a significant reservoir of goodwill among the Jakarta elite from which Australia can occasionally draw. Of course, national interest and pride will always gazump personal affinities and nostalgia, especially in an election year. But the Australia-Indonesia relationship is always personal, and it always will be.

For instance, the allegation by rogue intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that the phone of First Lady Ani Yudhoyono was tapped no doubt caused great offence to the President and his wife.

Ibu Ani herself has a long family connection to Australia. Her late father, among the most respected and revered generals in Indonesia's history, attended army staff college at Fort Queenscliff, Victoria, in the mid-1960s. Some of the First Lady's most treasured memories must surely be the family outings with her father in the Holden EH he brought home from Australia. The car remains roadworthy to this day.

Yet the President's reaction to the Snowden claims has been calm and collected, compared with similar circumstances almost thirty years ago.

Articles appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1986 accusing the First Family of corruption evoked a febrile response from then president General Suharto. A Garuda jumbo jet full of Australian tourists on its way from Sydney to Bali was ordered by Indonesian authorities to return to Sydney. Ties were effectively severed, with no ministerial visits either way for over two years. Military exchanges, a central plank of the relationship, were suspended overnight, although civilian intelligence exchanges continued unimpaired.

And the overriding reason for Suharto’s reaction? Australian journalist David Jenkins had insulted the President's chief political confidant, his wife Siti Hartinah, by referring to her as 'Madame Ten Percent'. It was a standing joke among Indonesian businessmen that Madame Suharto's share for approving commercial ventures was 10% of proposed costs. The jibe was even more acute, as the shortened version of her name, Tien, is also Dutch for ten. When the insult appeared openly in the Australian press, we had caused significant personal offence to the President and his wife.

That storm eventually passed. This one will too. But offence given or taken personally will always require personal intervention for balance to be restored. Such intercessions began when the latest storm in relations first broke.

You will recall that former Chief of the Australian Army and University of Canberra lecturer Peter Leahy was chosen to convey correspondence from the Australian prime minister to the president of Indonesia shortly after the Snowden allegations appeared.  Apart from frequent interactions with his Indonesian counterparts during two terms as Chief of Army, Professor Leahy also has deep personal relations with influential advisers and thinkers around Jakarta, friendships forged while fellow students at the US Army's staff college in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The choice of Peter Leahy to carry a personal message between national leaders at a difficult time was unorthodox but inspired. The symbolism would not have escaped retired General Yudhoyono.

Personal engagement and interactions continue, many away from the glare of public consciousness.

When Australian Defence Force Chief David Hurley retires, he will leave many legacies. Perhaps the least recognised but most enduring will be the gamble he and his Indonesian counterpart took in establishing a formal alumni association between the military establishments of Australia and Indonesia in 2011. 

Once again, personal connections inspired Hurley's plan. In 2009 he met an Indonesian general he had not seen since 1974, when the two were boys on a military cadet exchange. Resolved that future generations would have a mechanism he did not, in order to remain in touch over the miles and years, General Hurley and Air Marshal Edy Harjoko launched the Ikatan Alumni Pertahanan Indonesia-Australia to do just that – in all times and for all seasons.

But David Hurley's vision extended further than other, similar institutions. Atop the alumni association sits a board of directors which the Australian and Indonesian military chiefs can convene as required. It comprises senior retired military officers from both countries who recognise the importance of a strong bilateral relationship and have an abiding interest in its continuing good health. Members give freely of their time, united in the common purpose of seeing the relationship between their nations flourish.

The forum is not a debating society. Although the group's proceedings are in-camera, ensuring candid exchanges among friends, their views and recommendations are conveyed directly to Australian and Indonesian Defence chiefs, and often further afield.

In the best of times and the worst of times, there will be a strong personal dimension to ensure the longevity and durability of Australia-Indonesia relations.

Image courtesy of the Australian Defence Force.