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Indonesia neutral on Turnbull vs Shorten but down on Joyce

Indonesia neutral on Turnbull vs Shorten but down on Joyce
Published 17 Jun 2016 

With the Australian federal election now a fortnight away, a polling station will open on Monday at the new Australian Embassy in Jakarta, which will be hosting overseas voting for the first time. The new complex opened in March as Australia's biggest, most expensive embassy, intended to reflect the growing size of our 'diplomatic footprint' in Indonesia, according to ambassador Paul Grigson. But as Australia increases its focus on Indonesia, how much attention is Indonesia paying to a potential change of leadership in Australia?

Judging from a review of local media and chatter in Jakarta, there's not a great deal of interest in whether Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten emerges Australia's next prime minister  (a review of Australian media might reveal a similar lack of interest, but that's another story). 

The bulk of election coverage in Indonesian online news appears to be syndicated content from Australia Plus, the ABC multimedia platform that replaced the Australia Network after its funding was slashed in 2014. Republished articles written in Indonesian cover topics such as the religious beliefs of the respective candidates, and the reason why Australia still uses pencils for its ballot papers. Besides these types of background stories, there's little in local media that is critical of either leader's platform, or reveals a general preference for one over the other.

Turnbull is the more familiar face in Indonesia, having visited Jakarta and President Jokowi just over six months ago. At that time the new prime minister was warmly welcomed as a change from Tony Abbott who was widely disliked after he implied Indonesia was in diplomatic debt to Australia for aid contributions in the wake of  the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. [fold]

Since then, Turnbull has had to return to damage control on behalf of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who created a news moment in the campaign with comments that implied a link between Labor's suspension of live cattle exports and a rise in the volume of asylum-seeker boat arrivals from Indonesia in 2011. 

That incident did earn Shorten some points in local media after he described Joyce as 'ignorant' for pointing fingers at Indonesia over the boat arrivals. Indonesia's former foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, also stepped in, saying 'It is shocking to suggest that the Indonesian government would risk the safety and lives of innocent asylum seekers in making the treacherous journey to Australia simply to make a point'. But the two current foreign ministers for the countries —Julie Bishop and Retno Marsudi — are reported to have swiftly resolved the misunderstanding over a phone call.

Ambassador Grigson has assured media in Jakarta that all major parties understand the importance of the Australia-Indonesia relationship, and that despite any differences in approach, language or personnel, the commitment remains to foster good relations.

Aside from the usual issues of 'beef, boats and Bali', a more sensitive area of diplomatic relations for Australia's next leader may be the use of the death penalty in Indonesia. Turnbull and Shorten have both been spared the task of dealing with the issue directly as yet. While it appears that executions have been put on hold for now, the attorney-general's office continues to make frequent announcements about upcoming plans for more. The most difficult dimension of this issue is that it is highly sensitive both for Australia, as an opponent of the death penalty, and Indonesia, because of public perceptions surrounding Australian interference in the application of Indonesian law. Whoever wins the election will have to make an effort to see the point of view of both nations.

Photo courtesy of Flickr use Australian Embassy Jakarta

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