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Poking a stick in hornet's nest stirs up Indonesian relations

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Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison.

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison. Photo: Steven Siewert

Australians are so much in the hands of the seasons that it is quite impossible to guess how the nation will fare in its ''war'' against asylum seekers exercising their legal right to approach us by boat.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has virtually declared victory in recent days, as the number of boats arriving has dwindled to zero. He thinks that is thanks to military interception operations: the number of boats setting out has declined. But this is the monsoon season, in which the number of voyages traditionally fall, and it could be early days yet. This government cannot, as yet, control the weather or the seasons.

Nor can it control the fact that it will soon be the full-blown political season in Indonesia, with voters deciding on July 9 who is to be the next president, and which parties will control the new legislature. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the incumbent who has done quite a bit to smooth frictions between Indonesia and Australia over recent years, is constitutionally ineligible. His successors may not be that kindly disposed. Relations with Indonesia could easily become beyond Australia's capacity to control.

This is not because of any fundamental hostility to Australia on the part of any of the candidates with a winning chance. It is because Indonesian politicians, like the sillier Australian politicians, tend to play the politics of their relations with other countries for purely domestic purposes. Things being said and done by Australian politicians for their own domestic advantage are now causing considerable annoyance and embarrassment in Indonesia.

As Australia ramps up its military response to boats leaving Indonesian shores, there are no votes whatever in Indonesia for taking it calmly and passively, or for ''understanding'' Australia's point of view or actions. Even less when Australian military vessels enter Indonesian waters uninvited, even by accident. Or when our Defence Department initially tells lies about it, as if the truth would not soon emerge. Or when there are usable allegations that Australian sailors have injured asylum seekers.

Exploitation of such things to embarrass Australia does not happen because Indonesia or Indonesians are secretly spoiling for some form of confrontation, military or otherwise. It happens because politicians, of all people, know the value of affront, of indignant reaction, of wrapping themselves around flags, and of seeking national unity from supposed threats from abroad.

Indeed it would be typical of Australian arrogance and cynicism to nod understandingly, and then to imagine that they must have learnt such behaviour from Australian politicians and example. Ours are awful enough, and shameful enough. But Indonesia, and its militant nationalism, has hardly ever had to look south for lessons in the business of politics and government.

About two-thirds of Indonesia's population of about 250 million are eligible to vote. Most likely, about half of the population - about 125 million people - will. About 5 per cent of those voters belong to what might be described as Indonesia's political or chattering classes - people with the time, the education, the income, the security, the interest and the leisure to sit about calmly discussing politics, economics, social affairs and international relations of their country.

Most citizens live a long practical distance from their capital. They are primarily preoccupied with matters far closer to home: subsistence, farming and commodity prices, Islam, and the practical problems of health, education, cash income, fuel and energy prices. It is quite wrong to say that politics is a luxury for such people.

Indeed, a great deal of their life

turns on local political decisions and actions. They are keenly interested in what government says and does. But that interest is focused on the practical effect of government on their village, city and region, not in relatively abstract matters involving relations with unbelievers a great practical distance away.

A good many of the political classes on both sides of the Timor Sea hope and expect that hot words, by politicians to their own nationals, on either side, are treated with a generous discount. Meanwhile, they hope and think, the ordinary business of essentially friendly and workable relations continues. After all, one might think, it is impossible to say that Australia's national interests are in any sort of collision with Indonesia, even on refugees. The ''irritations'' - such as they are - are (they hope) little more than the occasional petty quarrels of quite good friends.

Australians have extensive business interests in Indonesia. Our diplomats and our military are great chums with theirs. We give Indonesia a lot of aid, and not a little deference in international forums. Millions of Australians holiday in Bali, and tens of thousands of Indonesians, not least members of the political classes, have studied here - and in some cases have extensive ''bolt-hole'' investments here.

One might, complacently, think that there ought to be lots of self-correcting political stabilisers which keep any wars of words within safe and predictable limits, able to leave the essential relationship strong.

Yet there have been many occasions which have demonstrated how brittle and superficial the relationship can be, in spite of all of the efforts. Or how strong some of the mutual resentments, whether over East Timor, September 11, Australia's efforts to have citizenship in south-east Asia, or, now over boat people.

In this context, Australia is on a hiding to nothing because of the veil of secrecy, imposed by politicians rather than the military, over its militarised ''on-water'' operations to intercept boats carrying asylum seekers, and to turn them back towards Indonesia.

The Australian Defence Force has historically operated with far greater censorship and want of public accountability than other Western forces, for no purpose that has seemed correct in retrospect. At the moment, as we have focused our military might on attacking, capturing, repulsing and repatriating civilian families, the claim that these are ''warlike'' operations reflects particularly ill on our politicians and our service chiefs.

Our military, it seems, cannot operate except under secrecy and cover - and much less accountability - than the American or British over American operations in Guantanamo Bay, or the British intelligence and special forces operations against the IRA in the 1980s. Some of those enemies were actually dangerous.

The commander of this operation, Lieutenant Angus Campbell, is, of course, obedient to the demands of his political masters and not to be criticised for the unpleasant task he has been given. But he has made personal choices too, and those are on his own responsibility, not the government's.

He must take responsibility for what is done under his orders, and he must also take responsibility for choosing to adopt (and give political cover to his minister for) the high levels of operational secrecy.

The ADF gave Campbell cover to define the military need - as opposed to the political need - to shroud operations in secrecy. His embrace of the minister's definition as his own is his own responsibility and a reflection of his own judgment. Any number of his peers have made it clear that it would not have been theirs, or that, if they had been ''prompted'' into it, they would have made it more clear.

Campbell, in short, made a political judgment about what was wise, militarily. He is far from the only senior defence officer to do so, even if Australian experience has shown that leaders who do so finish up used and abused, and, often, judged harshly by those they have led.

Likewise, both the Immigration Minister and the Chief of Navy, Admiral Ray Griggs, have been over-egging the pudding in insisting that ''loyal'' Australians automatically reject the ''sledging'' of the navy and accusations of rough handling of refugees.

Put bluntly, the reputation of Australian sailors, or the ADF in general, is not so high that any suggestion that some might behave badly should be rejected out of hand.

If it were, Australians might have been spared some of the national humiliations visited upon us by sequence after sequence of scandal about sexual harassment, bullying, assaults, bastardisation, cover-up, and victimisation over recent years. And that has been what young men and women (and their more senior hierarchies in managing complaints) are said to have done to each other, sometimes on active operations.

One might know all of the reasons why one should apply a discount to allegations made by asylum seekers, desperate to get to Australia. But I do not know why one should automatically assume, as against the word of an officer of the Royal Australian Navy , that they are lying. Even less should one assume that the material which could exonerate sailors must be kept secret for genuine reasons of national security. This is a navy that initially lied in the past week about encroaching on Indonesia's boundaries.

Indeed the situation in which Admiral Griggs finds himself is a direct consequence of Lieutenant Campbell's decision to put his operations behind a screen. While the conduct of some senior officers of the navy, in relation to the Children Overboard affair, was disgraceful, at least those directly involved in the operation could clear their names of responsibility by reference to video and other material. Theirs was an operation far braver than anything under the control of Admiral Griggs or General Campbell.

The Australian Defence Force, like the Australian Federal Police, often insists that it is under an onerous, difficult and transparent accountability regime. The record, which has shown repeatedly that only extra and external inquiries get to the real truth, suggests otherwise. In any event, it might always be diffiult to demand credit if one is ''fighting'' against civilians, including women and children, while insisting that operational reasons mean that the public cannot know what is happening.

It is on the calmness and the sound judgment of those who have been managing this affair over recent weeks that Australians depend on the situation not suddenly escalating in ways that become very difficult for Australia - or even our friends in the Indonesian system - to control. Thank heavens we have our professional diplomats on the sideline - as well as people in our military who actually have had a close working relationship with Indonesians. And that our real experts - our shock jocks, and a few other commentators, can keep things on an even keel by hurling abuse at Indonesian officials, and pretending that the refugee ''crisis'' is one of Indonesia's making.

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