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Australians against executions, against damaging relations with Indonesia

Australians against executions, against damaging relations with Indonesia
Published 8 May 2015   Follow @ConnellyAL

A new Lowy Institute poll conducted last weekend, three days after the executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, shows that while Australians strongly opposed the executions of their compatriots, they are also opposed to responding in ways that could damage the relationship with Indonesia. 

We should not underestimate the depth of the grief felt by many Australians over the deaths of these two men. 71% of Australians said that the death penalty should not be used as a penalty for drug trafficking, and 51% of Australians replied that Australia should make opposition to the death penalty a diplomatic priority. But when offered a range of possible response to the executions, Australians were pragmatic: 59% said Australians should make private diplomatic protests, the only response prescribed by a majority of Australians.

There was less support for the idea of making more public protests. Only 42% agreed that Australia should recall its ambassador, a step the Government had already announced when we polled. Even fewer (28%) thought Australia should suspend aid, or suspend military and law enforcement cooperation (27%).

While the Government has already recalled the ambassador to Jakarta, a majority of Australians — 51% — believe he should return to his post within one to four months. Only 34% believe he should remain away longer. 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Cabinet should determine Australian policy based on a principled and fully informed understanding of Australian interests, and that understanding may lead them to a different policy than those prescribed by the poll results. But the results indicate that the Cabinet is not under intense public pressure to get tough on Indonesia, as a look at the Australian media over the past ten days might have suggested. [fold]

Of particular note as the Government prepares to unveil its budget next week, it is under no particular pressure to suspend aid to Indonesia. (If press reports are correct, we are likely to see a cut to the aid budget for Indonesia rather than a suspension.)

I would stress that this result is not born of any particular warmth to Indonesia. The Lowy Institute polls Australian attitudes toward various countries every year, asking them to place their feelings toward a given country on a thermometer from 0 to 100. Indonesia regularly polls in the 40s and 50s, on par with countries like Russia and Egypt. Rather, I'd guess (the poll results are silent on motive) that Australians prefer a measured response because they prefer a pragmatic approach.

As the Government considers how to calibrate its response to the executions, it should consider that while Australians oppose steps that could damage the relationship with Indonesia, they also have strong views on the death penalty. For a country that has historically adopted a pragmatic foreign policy, it is striking that a majority of Australians (51%) support an active role for the Australian Government in pushing for the abolition of the death penalty internationally. As my colleague Michael Fullilove has argued, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken in this area, which could be strengthened through cooperation with other abolitionist states in the region, such as the Philippines.

The results are drawn from a nationally representative sample of adult Australians in a poll conducted by Newspoll on behalf of the Lowy Institute from 1-3 May 2015. The margin of error was approximately -/- 2.8%. These results are in addition to two other polls conducted by the Lowy Institute over the last three months on the subject of the executions and Australia's relationship with Indonesia. The data from these polls can be found here.

Photo by Flickr user Mike Weber.

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