Politics | Indonesia could be just what Australia prime minister needs
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he answers questions during a media conference in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, November 22, 2016. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he answers questions during a media conference in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, November 22, 2016. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Indonesia could be just what Australia prime minister needs

The potential smoothing of diplomatic tensions with Indonesia comes as Mr Turnbull faces increasing pressure and critics on the home front

February 24, 2017 10:50 PM (UTC+8)

A reset in relations with Indonesia could serve as a much-needed piece of good news for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as he battles domestic political woes fuelled by an increasingly heated dispute with his outspoken predecessor Tony Abbott.

Mr Turnbull will host the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, in Australia this weekend. They are aiming to draw a line under several difficult moments in bilateral relations in the past few years and are even set to discuss the possibility of joint military patrols in the South China Sea.

The potential smoothing of diplomatic tensions comes as Mr Turnbull faces pressure on the home front.

Mr Abbott, who was ousted from the leadership of the centre-right Liberal party in 2015 but remains a member of parliament, was rebuked by his many of his colleagues for saying the government was drifting towards defeat and needed to lift its game. In a provocative move, he also outlined a conservative political manifesto to win the next election, including slashing immigration and renewable energy targets.

The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, who was previously a close supporter of Mr Abbott’s leadership, told Sky News he was “saddened” by the former prime minister’s “self-indulgent” decision “to provide more and more destructive commentary.”

Amid reports that Mr Abbott told a conservative senator that he hoped to return to his old job, a clearly furious Mr Turnbull also took aim at the former leader for undermining the government.

“I don’t think Australians were impressed by that latest outburst,” Mr Turnbull said at a press conference on Friday. “He knows exactly what he’s doing and so do his colleagues.”

Senior ministers lined up to assure voters that there was no prospect of a change of leadership back to Mr Abbott, but such talk has become cheap in a country used to late-night, backroom deals to switch leaders. Australia has witnessed four changes of prime minister since 2010, only one of which was the result of a general election.

Mr Turnbull led the ruling Coalition to an electoral victory last year but, with only a narrow majority in the lower house and lacking a majority in the upper house, faces an uphill battle to get legislation passed.

His government is also lagging behind the main opposition Labor party in opinion polls. Mr Turnbull’s central policy, a A$48 billion (US$36.78 billion) package of business tax cuts marketed as a way to add jobs, is unlikely to pass the Senate without major carve-outs.

The Coalition is also facing political pressure from the far-right, with Pauline Hanson’s anti-immigration, anti-Muslim One Nation Party forming a power bloc in the Senate that holds the key to the passage of disputed legislation.

Against this backdrop, Mr Turnbull will look forward to the prospect of “warmly” welcoming Mr Widodo to Australia on Saturday.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo could bring temporary stress relief to Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

The Indonesian president, who hosted Mr Turnbull in Jakarta in late 2015, said on the eve of the visit that the pair understood each other well, partly because they both came from a business background.

Their talks will focus mainly on economic ties, including plans to finish a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement later this year.

The relationship between Jakarta and Canberra has been strained by several issues over the past four years, including anger over revelations that Australia spied on the Indonesian leadership, tensions over Australia’s methods of turning back boats of asylum seekers, and Indonesia’s decision to execute in 2015 two Australians convicted for their roles in the “Bali Nine” drug-smuggling case in 2005.

Most recently, ties have been marred by a dispute over what Indonesia described as the discovery of “insulting” teaching materials at an Australian military training base. Indonesia suspended military cooperation between the two countries in January, prompting an apology from Australia’s army chief the following month.

But in a sign that relations are getting back on track, Mr Widodo used a newspaper interview to hint that the suspension would be lifted after the weekend’s meetings.

As for the prospect of joint patrols in the South China Sea, he told The Australian there was an important caveat: “If there is no tension, I think it’s very important to have the patrols together. We will discuss this with PM Turnbull.”

Given political events, a lack of tension is a goal Mr Turnbull surely can support.