Sometimes it can be quite useful, articulating or helping justify blunt statements of position that don't come easily from a Javanese leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Photo: Daniel Hartley-Allen
Indonesian parliament's Komisi Satu - Commission One - is the repository of all that nation's fears of the outside world.
Here swirls the collective memory of colonial divide-and-rule, the last-ditch effort by the Dutch to foist federalism on the new state and keep Papua out, the 1950s CIA backing for regional revolts, the British wizardry with Malaysia, and Australia's on-and-off support over East Timor.
A forum for Indonesian-style bloviating? It often is.
But not one either the Indonesian executive currently under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or foreign governments can push aside. And sometimes it can be quite useful, articulating or helping justify blunt statements of position that don't come easily from a Javanese leader.
So as Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop start work on the foreign relationship they have picked out as Australia's most important one, they need to keep in mind that dealing with Indonesia these days involves a lot more than a deal with its President.
Although direct elections of the president have tilted the balance back quite a bit, the political system that's evolved since the late president Soeharto fell in 1998 splits power between the executive and the parliament. The government has to cajole and sometimes bribe parliamentary commissions to get its policies and appointments approved.
So when Mahfudz Siddiq, the chairman of Komisi Satu, says during Australia's election campaign that Abbott's plans for stopping the flow of boat people were unfriendly and ''crazy'', this is not just one stray MP sounding off, as Abbott responded at the time.
Now the sentiment has been repeated by another commission figure, Tantowi Yahya, who has described the policies as ''very offensive'' and intrusive on Indonesia's sovereignty.
The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, has regular battles with Komisi Satu, whose members frequently accuse him of selling out Indonesia's interests (an occupational burden for foreign ministers and diplomats in any system). On this issue, he's not fighting them, instead using a committee hearing to flag the government's concerns.
On even cursory study, the three boat-people initiatives announced before the election will need Indonesia's agreement and co-operation, quite aside from the practical difficulties of pre-empting people smugglers by buying and destroying local vessels; paying a network of local informers to watch for people-smuggling activity; and turning back boats full of asylum seekers into Indonesian territorial waters.
Indonesians eat a lot of fish. Would their authorities like a foreign government using its money to remove some fishing resources, even the older boats? What government would allow a foreign power to set up a network of spion Melayu (as local spies for the Dutch were known)? Surely, Indonesia will say, its police should be doing that job, as we know (thanks to WikiLeaks) they have done for years with an American bounty scheme for information about terrorists. And why should Indonesia accept boatloads of third-party nationals from international waters?
So far Julie Bishop is insisting that ''we're not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding''. Almost certainly, she will have to back off. The Coalition's programs can only be implemented either in co-operation with the Indonesian police, or perhaps covertly through our intelligence services (if the cover is not already blown).
She and Abbott will find Australia's bitter focus on asylum seekers has raised Indonesian hackles, at least temporarily. Old issues have been dragged out. On September 14 Indonesia's biggest and most respected newspaper, Kompas, ran an opinion piece in which Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law professor at the prestigious University of Indonesia, argued bipartisan toughness on boat-people and its strong electoral backing was to ''keep Australia white''.
Our new leaders will find large sections of Indonesia's elite, like Juwana, ill-disposed towards Australia, finding selfish purpose in all the programs we might regard as altruistic or mutually beneficial - like development aid, counter-terrorism, cattle exports, business investment, military liaison, epidemic prevention.
The fresh inputs the Abbott government says it will bring to the relationship are also thin and operationally problematic. The ''Reverse Colombo Plan'' to put 4000 Australian students in Asian universities each year still has to find universities suitable and ready to take them, and perhaps will struggle to find volunteers among the best Australian students. There is nothing yet to save Indonesian language study from disappearing from our schools. Consulting the Indonesians on issues wider than south-east Asia, Bishop will find little in the way of informed new thinking - and some incompatible views on issues like the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The Yudhoyono government may be as good as it gets in the Indonesian executive for a while. On current trends, by the end of next year the Indonesian president will either be the current Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo, at the head of a Sukarnoist party, or Prabowo Subianto, an impulsive former special forces general who is still, because of old human rights cases, persona non grata in the United States and much of Europe.
Even Yudhoyono is the only Indonesian President to have withdrawn his ambassador from Canberra in protest, as he did in 2006 over the Howard government's decision to grant asylum to 43 dissidents arriving from Papua.
Abbott and Bishop will find the relationship much more of a rough-and-tumble than the love-in they seem to expect that a few visits and bit of attention will create.
♦ Hamish McDonald, journalist-in-residence at the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific, is just back from six weeks in Indonesia.