The idea that Canberra's volatile political relationship with Jakarta could be remediated by greater ‘ballast’ has been an article of faith in Australian foreign policy circles since former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans employed the metaphor in a 1988 speech to a bilateral business forum. Evan's logic was that greater substance in the form of increased mutual interests would provide greater equilibrium to what he described as an 'overly intense political relationship'. 

Fast forward 27 years and the relationship remains highly susceptible to political differences, notwithstanding greater substance achieved through enhanced government-to-government links, like the 2+2 foreign and defence ministerial meetings this week, but also extending well beyond ministries. Two-way trade in goods and services, meanwhile is now estimated at around $14.9 billion, but remains far below potential.

Greater ballast there now may be, but developments in 2015 suggest that 'form' is just as important as substance when dealing with a political culture that values hierarchy and respect in diplomatic and business interactions. Indeed, as the year draws to a close, the new form displayed by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during his November visit to Jakarta has provided relations with a much needed fillip. 

Turnbull's willingness to emulate President Joko Widodo's informal style and engage in the President's trademark blusukan (impromptu visits), in this instance to Jakarta's central Tanah Abang market, was warmly-received by surprised stall-holders and shoppers alike.

More importantly, the change in style was noted positively by key figures in the Indonesian Government: 'He looked as though he was genuinely enjoying himself', observed a senior Indonesian cabinet minister. 'We set up a positive tone and we’re ready to move on,' said Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

What Turnbull’s visit suggests is that it was not only fundamental differences over the substance of issues relating to asylum seekers, espionage activities and perceived interference in Indonesia's legal and territorial sovereignty that were at the core of strained bilateral ties this year, but the way they were 'managed' by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. 

To some degree Abbott was unfortunate that his tenure as prime minister coincided with a number of adverse developments in the bilateral relationship that were not of his own doing. At the same time, Abbott’s responses in contrast to his deputy, Julie Bishop, were far from nuanced and often served to exacerbate tensions. 

The propensity by Australian politicians to inadvertently aggravate bilateral tensions was noted by former ONA analyst Ken Ward in an insightful Lowy Institute paper on the bilateral relationship released mid-year. In Condemned to Crisis?, Ward argued that Australian politicians of both persuasions had been 'clumsy' and 'tactless' in their handling of issues considered highly sensitive to Indonesia. 

Abbott’s February attempt to leverage clemency for Australian death row narcotics offenders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran by reminding Indonesia of Australia's generous tsunami aid was a case in point. His careless comments created a social media backlash in Indonesia, and although Chan and Sukumaran's fate was most certainly sealed by this time, it did little good for any leverage the Australian Government may have had in Jakarta.

Similarly, Abbott's blunt 'Nope, nope, nope' response last May to the prospect of assisting Indonesia and other regional states in settling thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees stranded at sea, angered Indonesian diplomats

In the wake of earlier espionage revelations in October and November 2013 that had a lingering impact into 2015, Abbott’s stubborn refusal not to comment on intelligence matters only made Indonesia’s political elites angrier. His eventual mea culpa, when it came was couched so clumsily that the Indonesian foreign minister at the time, Marty Natalegawa, exhorted indignantly: 'I don't get it. Why would the president of Indonesia be embarrassed?'

Fear of angering Indonesia should not of course preclude Australian political leaders from making decisions based on what they perceive as the national interest. Nor should it proscribe Australia's policy autonomy. But there are costs to the inept management of difficult issues as they arise in such a vital regional relationship.

Fortunately for Canberra, Jakarta’s receptivity to a change in Australia’s leadership style has converged with Jokowi's political consolidation. In an October cabinet reshuffle Jokowi shook up key economic ministries and appointed his most influential advisor, former three star Indonesian Army officer Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, to the powerful role of coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. 

Not without controversy domestically, Panjaitan has emerged as a key interlocutor for Australia. His assertion of authority over aspects of government policy beyond his remit, including economic matters, appears to have given the Jokowi Administration greater confidence to pursue its economic policy priorities. 

On reflection, 2015 ends with Australia-Indonesia relations surprisingly upbeat given the bitter disappointment which accompanied the Chan and Sukumaran executions. Renewed optimism is evident in an unprecedented visit by 344 Australians in a business delegation and in added momentum on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The halt on executions announced in November by Panjaitan, furthermore, indicates Jokowi's cognisance that uncompromising domestic political positions carry additional costs in international confidence and investment terms.

In managing what will continue to be a volatile relationship, form as expressed in more delicate attempts by Australian political leaders to defuse bilateral differences, can do much to repair strained political relations. As Jokowi noted positively to colleagues on Turnbull's style: 'Ini lainya!' – 'this is a different' approach.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Australian Embassy Jakarta.