Book review: Common enemies: crime, policy and politics in Australia–Indonesia relations, by Michael McKenzie (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Next month marks the 17th anniversary of the Bali Bombing, which on 12 October 2002 claimed the lives of 202 people and injured 209 others. The attack kicked off an immediate joint Australian and Indonesian police investigation, which ushered in an era of stronger law enforcement cooperation between the two countries and provided a much-needed reset for diplomatic relations after the 1999 intervention in East Timor.

Although nearly two decades of cooperation have followed, which now includes forensics, courts, and prisons, what might the next few decades hold? On top of domestic political issues in both countries, inter-service rivalries, and budgetary constraints, terrorism has grown increasingly complex, with the adoption of social media, encrypted communications, and child suicide bombers, among other things. What has worked in this relationship, and what can Australia and Indonesia do in future to successfully pursue justice?

McKenzie’s careful research is filled with valuable lessons about the value of face-to-face engagement, exercising patience, and deep expertise on bureaucratic systems and political culture.

Enter Michael McKenzie. His new book, Common Enemies, shines a light into the history and practice of criminal-justice cooperation between Australia and Indonesia. As both an academic at the policy-oriented Australian National University and senior legal official in the Australian government working on justice and security reform in Australia and Southeast Asia for the past decade, McKenzie has the ideal background for such an undertaking. His goal is to explain what drives cooperation between the countries.

As Common Enemies lays out, the story of Australia–Indonesia police relations begins long before the Bali bombings, following on the increasing securitisation of transnational crime, most obviously manifest in the United States’ war on drugs and the global war on terror. From these small beginnings, he tracks the successes and failures in the relationship across three groups of actors: bureaucrats (police), political figures, and private individuals. In examining such a large cross-section, McKenzie goes beyond merely showing how politics affects cooperation to demonstrate how cross-border networks draw communities closer together, particularly between police.

Indeed, a recurrent theme in the book is the importance of personal ties and shared subcultures. The relationship between former Australian police commissioner Mick Keelty and former Indonesian investigation head for the Bali Bombing I Made Mangku Pastika, forged during a course in the early 1990s, has become legendary and is often cited as one of the international exchange success stories. While the evolution of the police relationship has been explored elsewhere (including in one report in which McKenzie and I were co-authors with David Connery), McKenzie’s book is the first up-to-date, book-length academic treatment of the topic that delves into the relationships between lawyers, civil society, public servants, and more.

The personalities of figures like Keelty, Pastika, Graham Ashton, Da’i Bachtiar, Gories Mere (who declared “F*** the terrorists” after the Bali Bombing), and other prominent figures in the police world are better known to Australia–Indonesia law-enforcement observers, but to the casual reader, they serve as colourful characters and humanise an otherwise serious subject matter.

Common Enemies strikes a careful balance between discussing theory and facts. On theory, McKenzie’s work will appeal to International Relations scholars keen to understand how and why states cooperate. The book’s detailed case studies make a rich contribution to the literature on Australia–Indonesia relations. Indeed, one of its strengths is the roughly 100 interviews with current and former police, prosecutors, legal officials, diplomats, politicians, defence lawyers, activists, journalists, and academics. To this add archival material and McKenzie’s professional experience and personal contact with Indonesia as an Australian Embassy official and public servant. Acknowledging his unique insider/outsider status, the book sensibly omits any initiatives in which McKenzie was directly involved.

It is worth highlighting the focus in chapter five on private actors in shaping how governments respond to transnational threats. In the bilateral context, much of the literature on criminal-justice cooperation tends to highlight police, courts, and politicians, so McKenzie’s work is a welcome contribution that transcends traditional state-centrism in the academic field of International Relations.

Indeed, each of Common Enemies’ chapters can be read on its own. Each is prefaced with an accessible overview of the relevant theoretical or conceptual framework, but the less academically inclined can skip these pages for the rich empirical material in the rest of the book, which covers not just terrorism but a behind-the-scenes understanding of extradition, detainees in both countries, people smuggling, drug trafficking, and more.

The many contact points between Australia’s and Indonesia’s justice systems paint an encouraging picture. At the same time, as McKenzie highlights, chronic tensions in the bilateral relationship, misunderstandings about delays that can, sadly, derail cooperative efforts. Indeed, the efficacy of bilateral cooperation is dependent on broader developments in each country.

In Australia, politically sensitive issues such as people smuggling put added pressure on the relationship. In Indonesia, challenges include proposed legislation amendments to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) that civil society groups say would dramatically weaken it and seemingly draconian updates to the criminal code. The proper functioning of and public trust in state institutions such as the police, courts, and parliament play a significant part in the efficacy of both countries’ justice systems.

Understanding how both countries can maintain such levels of cooperation is one reason why books such as this by McKenzie are critical. His careful research is filled with valuable lessons about the value of face-to-face engagement, exercising patience, and deep expertise on bureaucratic systems and political culture. Many of these can be implemented at the policy level or through informal means. As such, Common Enemies should be essential reading for policymakers, law enforcers, scholars, and the general public interested in the future of criminal justice, international relations, or Indonesia.