Nick Alexander, a former UN and Lowy Institute intern, is a University of Sydney Juris Doctor candidate.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made it an essential theme of his trip to Indonesia to refocus the Australian people on tapping into Indonesia’s extraordinary business potential rather than remaining mired in the tired old rhetoric of boat arrivals. While the Prime Minister is right to broaden our public discourse on Indonesia, one crucial question has been lost in the shuffle: how does the Australian Government intend to protect those Australian businessmen and women who find themselves caught in Indonesia's under-developed legal system?
In the average year, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs faces approximately 20,000 consular crises, and the rates are increasing. My father, Patrick Alexander, is only the latest example of an Australian expatriate who has fallen victim to a legal system that is known to be deficient in the area of due process, and highly vulnerable to corruption.
My father's case is rendered all the more alarming with reference to his background, which involves a diplomatic and business career in Indonesia spanning more than 20 years. The question arises: when those who have built careers doing business in Indonesia can't avoid its legal quagmires, is it wise to promote the deepening of trade ties? While the promotion of regional trade is certainly a priority, the Prime Minister would be astute to consider negotiating stronger legal protections for Australians doing business in emerging economies like Indonesia.
Although there is some truth to former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's reprimand of Australian tourists who behave badly overseas and then demand strong intervention by consular officials, there is also reason to fear for the Australian businesspeople and their families who are being encouraged to stray beyond the protections of the Australian common law, and yet find themselves legally isolated with mere 'consular assistance' when disaster strikes.
It is not unreasonable for the Australian business community to expect more in the circumstances, and there is certainly room for negotiation. AusAID estimates that Australia is investing approximately A$646.8 million in Indonesia this year alone, and during his visit Mr Rudd is unveiling government funding for 400 Australian students to get 'study experiences' in the country, as well as a new promotional festival in Indonesia showcasing Australia's national culture.
In the circumstances, the Australian Government might consider negotiating a treaty with our largest neighbour whereby Australian businesspeople involved in contractual disputes are extradited to Australia to face civil courts, rather than being unlawfully subjected to criminal detention in Indonesia. This would arguably prevent the Indonesian Attorney General's office, recently described by the Indonesian Forum of Budget Transparency as the country's most corrupt institution, from pushing for criminal charges in recognisably civil cases.
Some form of extradition, and other like-minded solutions, must be placed on the negotiating table if Prime Minister Rudd is serious about encouraging Australian businesspeople to take clear risks in uncertain legal climates, lest more Australians fall through the cracks.
Photo by Flickr user seagers.