It was nice to see one of seven questions at last night's foreign policy debate focus on Indonesia, as a chance to draw out each party's plan to develop the relationship. Overall though, I thought each side's answers dodged some of the more difficult questions facing Australia-Indonesia ties.

Neither Carr nor Bishop set out a strategic vision for the relationship. The closest Carr came was when he talked of aligning Australian foreign policy with ASEAN; Bishop when she spoke of the need to adopt Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's idea of an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Neither comment sets out what common goals Australia and Indonesia might pursue together, nor whether the current structure of government-to-government ties is appropriate to do so.

Nor did either deal in depth with any of the key potential sticking points to growing the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Papua was not mentioned at all. Carr did underline closer defence and security cooperation, but not the question of what constraints the human rights record of the Indonesian police and military places on strategic cooperation. Nor did either seriously address the question of how relations might change when Indonesia elects a new president next year.

The question put to Carr and Bishop mentioned negative public attitudes and ignorance towards Indonesia, and I think both sides would agree this is a problem. Each promoted their party's respective scholarship program: Labor's AsiaBound and the Coalition's New Colombo plan.

Scholarships for in-country study are a positive, but are not going to transform people-to-people ties. Neither side addressed the need for new funds to maintain the teaching infrastructure within Australia in the face of declining student numbers. Nor did either seriously address how to spur sustained interest in 'Indonesia literacy', something scholarships are unlikely to remedy if there are no genuine career options.

In contrast to Sam, I found the Coalition's 'no surprises' slogan unconvincing. Both sides of politics have and are likely to continue to prioritise domestic political concerns even at the cost of causing short-term damage to the relationship. Hence the Coalition's continued promotion of a towback policy against clear objections from Indonesia, and Labor's sudden move two years ago to ban live cattle exports, for example.

Looking at where the relationship currently is though, this politicking has not caused permanent damage. Leaders in both countries may be irked when their counterparts play politics with bilateral issues, but the relationship is sufficiently mature to withstand such irritation.

Over the past decade, under both Coalition and Labor governments, Australia and Indonesia have taken large strides in forging closer government-to-government ties. There's still plenty of scope for the relationship to deepen and grow, but we didn't hear a lot of detail last night about how either side of politics will make that happen.

Photo by Flickr user budibudz.