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Published in Crikey 24 October The Canberra Times 26 October, 2013

According to sources close to Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) is less than impressed with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. This view was formed prior to the election when Abbott, Bishop and Morrison talked loud and long about turning around refugee boats and sending them back to Indonesia.

It was confirmed when Abbott turned up late for two important gatherings at APEC where SBY was in the chair, and in case there are some who would to contest this, when the egos of heads of state are on the line the attendance at all meetings of conferences such as APEC are important.

Politicians and other public figures do not live in a vacuum, whatever is said domestically about another government will be reported, with comment, to that government by their embassy and additionally their foreign ministry will pick up the remarks from wire service reports.

It is a measure of the lack of sophistication and parochial outlook of Abbott and the government he leads that there is an apparent failure to understand the way the world works. Infamously, remarks by an individual of another white, male dominated government reverberated around the world when it had been said to impress a domestic constituency. Jimmy Kruger, the South African Minister of Police in 1977 said, to laughter, at a ruling National Party conference, that the death in detention of Black activist Steve Biko ‘left him cold’. That remark came back to haunt his government for years to come.

Some years ago Abbott told an ABC journalist that he sometimes said things he did not mean in order to meet the political imperatives of the moment. This was a rare confession from a politician. It is a pattern of behaviour that has been confirmed over the years, the most recent being the about turn on his boats policy in Jakarta this month.

The Indonesians are well aware of his propensity for saying whatever he thinks will solve an immediate political problem. They are aware of his bombast, his superficiality and his lack of understanding about the complexities of their country. They do not believe his statements about respect for Indonesian sovereignty. They are also well aware of his boasts, in the past, that it was the Howard government who liberated the people of East Timor. They remain concerned that an Abbott led Coalition government would seek to do the same in West Papua.

The Indonesian elite are not blind to the policies employed in West Papua to keep that province within the Republic. They may not like it but as with Abbott’s approach to refugee policy they see it as necessary, with the use of force the only means to put down the separatist movement. For Abbott to state, as he did to the Indonesian President, that he admired and respected Indonesia’s policies in West Papua, would have led to sarcastic comments in Jakarta.

In the absence of getting the Papuan separatists to adopt Jakarta’s point of view toward the province, Indonesia expects criticism, even if it does not welcome it. Of course constructive criticism is always more easily received than negative criticism.

Abbott’s comments on West Papua and his turn around on boat policy will have undermined his credibility in Indonesia, he will be seen as someone seeking to curry favour and that will not win him respect in Indonesia or the rest of Asia.

He repeated his flawed version of regional diplomacy with a grovelling apology to Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak at APEC for earlier criticism, when in Opposition, on the nature of government in Malaysia, which in the event happened to be correct.

Razak leads a government which gained power through a gerrymander. It is a government on a par with that of Sri Lanka – corrupt and short on any notion of human rights. Razak is well aware of what the ruling UMNO party have had to do to hold onto power. They are ruthless, hard headed and act outside of their own laws. Public grovelling by Abbott to Razak will have won him no points and has only served to give Razak and his government a degree of legitimacy they do not deserve. In grovelling to the UMNO government in Malaysia, Abbott should be mindful of the consistent shellacking Australia received at the hands former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Australia has no reason to act like a shrinking violet.

Similarly pretending there are not human rights abuses being perpetrated against the defeated Tamil minority in Sri Lanka by the corrupt and discredited Rajapaksa regime does not reflect well on the Abbott government. The position they have adopted has been taken in order to secure the co-operation of the Sri Lankan government in stopping the flow of refugees to Australia.

Canada has taken a different view and as a result will not attend the CHOGM to be held in Sri Lanka in a few weeks time. It is unlikely that the Australian and Canadian High Commissions in Colombo are sending back different information on the situation in Sri Lanka. It might therefore be assumed that the Australian government is formulating foreign policy with respect to Sri Lanka solely on the basis of domestic political considerations.

Formulating foreign policy within such a framework has the potential to blow back in the governments face in light of the reality the Australian government is denying. This applies to PNG, where Julie Bishop, in opposition, managed to anger Prime Minister O’Neill over the question of aid and where plans and policies relating to asylum seekers held on Manus Island could sour relations as it could with Nauru for similar reasons.

With the Republican Tea Party faction pushing economic policy in the US to the right and with foreign policy in the US already to the right, Abbott and Bishop have challenges ahead which so far they have demonstrated little aptitude to handle. Abbott has indicated a preference for dealing with Japan over China and India is not on his radar. Backing Israel to the exclusion of Palestine is dumb policy in the context of the Middle East and Indonesia.

On present performance Coalition foreign policy would be better placed in the hands of Malcolm Turnbull and/or Andrew Robb.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.