On Sunday night, Indonesia's rival presidential candidates, Prabowo Subianto and Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, held their third televised debate ahead of the 9 July election, this time with the theme 'International Politics and National Defence'. In a wide-ranging discussion of regional concerns and Indonesia's national interests, Australia received special mention.
Jokowi, a small-town politician who has only recently risen to national-level politics, gave a surprisingly confident performance against the former military commander Prabowo, who was expected to dominate the international-themed debate. During a question and answer session, Jokowi asked his opponent for his opinion on why Australia-Indonesia relations had tended to run hot and cold.
Perhaps Jokowi has been brushing up on international affairs by reading the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, which showed via its 'feelings thermometer' that Australian sentiment towards its northern neighbour has been up and down since 2006, settling this year on a lukewarm 52 degrees out of 100. This is considerably cooler than Australians' feelings for other neighbours in the region, such as India (57), China (60) and Japan (67).
Prabowo's response gave the Australian media its sound bite for the evening: 'Honestly, I think that the problem is not in Indonesia. Perhaps Australia holds some kind of suspicion towards Indonesia. A kind of phobia,' Prabowo said.
Jokowi had his own comments prepared for the topic. He didn't go so far as to suggest that Australians had an irrational fear of Indonesia, but did identify the two main issues that he believed were affecting relations between the two countries: distrust and a lack of respect for Indonesia's integrity. 'There is a problem of trust, which is what led to the spying problem,' he said. 'We are regarded as a weak nation. It's a matter of national respect, a matter of integrity,' he added.
So both candidates claim the biggest problem for Australia-Indonesia relations lies in Australian attitudes towards Indonesia. What does the Lowy poll tell us about these attitudes? Are we really so suspicious, distrustful, disrespectful or even afraid of Indonesia?
The poll found that the majority of Australians still view the relationship as 'friendly' (57%), though 40% say it is deteriorating. The top three priorities for Australia's relations with Indonesia were identified as 'security in the region', 'terrorism' and 'asylum seekers and people smuggling'. On a global scale, 'international terrorism' was rated as the most critical threat to Australia's vital interests, while 'asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat' was the fifth most critical concern. So two of Australians' top five security concerns are also issues that they want addressed in the Australia-Indonesia relationship.
Tellingly, 62% of interviewees for the Lowy poll said that it was acceptable to spy on Indonesia, indicating that Australians do not trust Indonesia to share information of importance for Australia's security. From the Indonesian perspective, this shows a lack of respect for a country that Australia claims is a friend. It may also point to the attitudes that Jokowi and Prabowo mentioned.
It seems that Indonesia's potential future leaders hold very different priorities for international relations than ordinary Australians do.
Terrorism was not mentioned in Sunday's security debate, possibly because it is now mainly handled as a police matter, with the police becoming much more frequent targets of attacks than the general public or foreign 'enemies'. As for asylum seekers, Jokowi only said the issue should be dealt with via diplomacy.
Jokowi talked about modernising the armed forces, supporting Palestine's membership of the UN, preparing for the 2015 ASEAN economic community, promoting Indonesian products abroad, and protecting the maritime nation's natural resources from activities such as illegal fishing and logging. Prabowo argued that security starts at home, saying that the strongest defence against outside interference was to first develop a prosperous and disciplined nation, always returning to his campaign slogan that Indonesia needs to safeguard its natural wealth from 'leaking' into foreign hands.
It's not surprising to hear nationalist rhetoric in the lead-up to a presidential election. Jokowi's prepared comments on Indonesia's 'integrity' were likely drafted to dispel the public perception that Prabowo would be a more firm and decisive leader than Jokowi, who tends to solve problems via consultation and consensus. Prabowo's comments about military and economic might are surely also playing to this perception.
However, Australia should take note that its relationship with Indonesia was considered important enough to be raised during Sunday night's debate. Regardless of who emerges as Indonesia's new leader in the coming months, the Lowy poll and the televised debate suggest that Australian attitudes towards Indonesia play a crucial role in the relationship.