While Australians are largely united in their sadness at the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran there is divide over how we should respond.

For many, the over-riding sense is one of helplessness. Prominent voices on the left and right have reacted with anger and want to go beyond withdrawing our ambassador to also punish Indonesia by cutting aid. Others, such as those in the #saveourboys video, seem to think the Australian Government can just snap its fingers and force Jakarta to change.

In the last 24 hours both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have said Australia should campaign against the death penalty. How might our politicians make meaningful progress to end this practice?

The good news is that there is a long historical record of Australia being influential on the policies of its neighbours. The story of Australia's engagement with the Asia Pacific is as much one of Australia trying to change its region as it is of Australia adapting to it. As I detailed a few weeks ago, there are clear lessons from this history for how Australia could campaign for change in regional thinking about the death penalty.

First we’d need a good argument. But more than that, an argument which appeals to the existing views and concerns of those in the region who support the death penalty. Our concern is to persuade, not simply parade our views.

Second, we need a platform on which to talk. That might include appointing an Australian ambassador to focus on this issue full time — as we have for counter-terrorism and irregular migration — as well as building coalitions and forums of those who also want to end this practice.

Third, we need to work out a strategy for creating change. Are there key countries which everyone else looks to for leadership? Are there domestic groups we could work with? And how do we ensure our views come across as genuine moral conviction and not a stereotype of the West lecturing the East?

Finally, we need to accept that this is a long, long campaign. Any serious effort will outlast the careers of current members of the Australian parliament. The campaign needs to be based on a united genuine belief and backed by serious resources, as we did with non-proliferation and trade liberalisation.

After surveying 30 years of Australian foreign policy in Asia for my book Winning the Peace, I am optimistic that Australia can have significant influence in regional policies. We should not feel helpless, but nor should we assume influence is easy. The real question is not whether we could campaign for change, but whether we are prepared to do so for not a month or year but for a decade and beyond.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.