Yesterday I joined the chrorus of critics against Prime Minister Abbott's attempt to link Australian aid to the Chan-Sukumaran case. But today's Waleed Aly column prompts me to reconsider:

...perhaps Abbott didn't grasp the gravity of suggesting that Indonesia "reciprocate" for our aid with clemency. 

But that's the problem. Abbott isn't running talkback. He's running international diplomacy. And in that world of maddeningly polite, highly coded speech, this is a rhetorical bomb. It says our aid is conditional, that it imposes obligations and that if we feel those obligations haven't been met, we might just withhold it in future. 

That's a hell of thing to imply, even in private. 

Is it, though? If Australia takes its objections to capital punishment seriously, why would it be so outrageous to reconsider our aid effort for a country that directly affronts our values? Waleed Aly himself seems to have deep moral misgivings about capital punishment, so why is he so scandalised by the suggestion that Australia could rethink its aid program if Chan and Sukumaran are executed? It would be surprising if the Government is not already getting calls from NGOs and the public to take precisely that action.

The larger problem here is the aid program itself, which unavoidably creates the stigma of inequality in the relationship. It casts one side as poor and weak, and the other as wealthy and strong. As I said yesterday, when it comes to the Australia-Indonesia relationship that's already a fiction, though our belief in it is sustained by the fact that Indonesia is still poor in per-capita terms and has a weak government. But that state of affairs is not likely to last much longer.

Waleed Aly's claim that the Australia-Indonesia relationship is in 'disrepair' strikes me as a substantial exaggeration (if we're at 'disrepair' now, how would he have described the state of the relationship when Indonesia withdrew its ambassador in light of the Snowden leaks?). But in any case it misdiagnoses the problem. If we continue to measure the state of the relationship on how well the latest crisis has been negotiated (whether it involves drugs, beef, boats or spies) then it is probably always going to look a little messy. The real measure of success is whether we can build a relationship now with a country that will, in the next three decades, become the fourth-biggest economy in the world. Can we create a sense of shared interests in a region of economic and strategic giants? Can we together build a stable and peaceful regional order as the balance of power shifts?

We can't begin to do that until we stop thinking of Indonesia as a charity case. As Abbott's hamfisted attempt to use aid as political leverage demonstrates, we would be better off if we started treating the Indonesians as equals.

PS. Some further bugbears with this column:

  • It's not fair to say that the Navy's incursions into Indonesian territory are 'the kind of thing we forget and dismiss'. Australia unreservedly apologised to Indonesia for those incursions.
  • Waleed Aly parses Tony Abbott's words for politically inspired subtext, yet he takes the Indonesian foreign ministry's claims of deep offence at face value. But is it possible that the Indonesians too are playing to numerous audiences?
  • In a similar vein, he recounts Indonesia's leaking of a transcript of Marty Natalegawa's conversation with Julie Bishop, but treats it purely as an example of Australian perfidy. (Note of clarification: what I'm trying to illustrate here is that Waleed Aly applies a highly critical perspective to Australian behaviour but doesn't seem to grant that Indonesia too might behave cynically from time to time.)