Every now and then a former parliamentary leader, minister or MP returns to the airwaves or to our TV screens to comment on issues that they think are important, on policy issues that they can still offer a reasonable opinion on. Some do it more than others as if craving to be back on the national stage in a big way. Some appear to have lucid thoughts, others not so intelligent or in-touch thoughts. Paul Keating is one such man. At times his thoughts on current challenges facing Australia and the world are clearly observable in reality, even on the money, and sometimes his ideas and comments are way off the mark.
The former Prime Minister last night went on Lateline to talk about a speech he was asked to deliver- the Keith Murdoch Oration which was given at the State Library of Victoria. It was a speech called Asia in the New Order: Australia’s Diminishing Sphere of Influence. The oration comes just a short time after the Labor Party released their Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.
In a wide-ranging speech about Australia’s positioning in Australia, both in historic and forward-looking terms, former Prime Minister Keating focused particularly on our relationship with Indonesia and her government based in Jakarta.
Australia’s relationship with Jakarta has been much like a yo-yo. We have had a tough time having to establish and then re-establish firm ties with Indonesia at different times in our mutual political history. Most recently, that cooperation was lost over the East Timor dispute and then clawed back, particularly since the Bali bombings.
Keating’s speech made a number of claims about how Australia should be participating in Asia and with whom that political interaction would offer the best outcomes for Australia.
Ostensibly, Mr Keating said that our key strategic relationship in the Asia-Pacific should actually be situated in the Indo-Pacific, specifically with a close geographical neighbour, Indonesia.
Paul Keating has form talking up the need for a close strategic partnership with Indonesia. Just under twenty years ago the former Australian Prime Minister declared that, “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. ”
His argument last night with regard to our relationship with Indonesia was based on three main themes, They were that our partnership lacks “structure” and “coherence” and is dominated by “transactional issues”. Those arguments are, for the most part, wrong.
The Australia-Indonesia relationship, though testy at times, has been a firm one for the past decade despite the occasional flash of discontent toward Australia and vice versa.
To say that the bilateral ties between Australia and Indonesia lack structure is false. For one, increasing economic ties with Indonesia is currently on the negotiating table. We are working towards an Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement and have been since 2010 when it was announced that discussions had commenced.
Australia and Indonesia are also part of regional bodies including the Bali Process, the Indonesia-Australia Annual Leaders’ meeting and APEC where we have the chance to meet on both a multilateral and bilateral basis.
The only regional forum where Australia is missing out on interaction with Indonesia is ASEAN, We are not a member of this grouping and that is one area where Paul Keating is correct to say we could improve on engagement with our region.
Australia-Indonesia ties do not lack coherence either. Coherence cannot be found to be lacking when we have set meetings at which we engage with the Indonesians at both a multilateral and bilateral level. It cannot be said that our regular two-way visits imply a lack of ongoing relations with our northern neighbour.
In terms of transactional issues, the former Prime Minister almost has a point. He talked about specific examples, the live export trade which was temporarily suspended and about the ongoing people movement between Indonesia and Australia.
They are transactional issues but our relationship goes beyond that. At the very least there appears to be a working relationship that has continued between President Yudhoyono and Julia Gillard after being grown by John Howard in particular and then Kevin Rudd.
There are times when we do not get as much as we would like from the Indonesians and they from us, but that is the nature of most relationships, not just with Indonesia. Particularly in the case of Indonesia, there are some things that they just cannot or will not grant us, mostly by virtue of the fact that they are a developing nation.
When talking about military and security power, the regional importance of Indonesia is questionable. They have a weak defence force and even weaker border protection capabilities. Australia, to its credit is trying to provide some assistance in those areas.
Paul Keating is wrong when he talks about needing to pull back from the Australia-US relationship in order to have a stronger friendship with Indonesia. Our relationship has been largely maintained, even grown throughout a period of increased Australian military ties with the United States of America.
The same is true of our relationship with China, despite their initially being some protestations from both the Chinese and the Indonesians when we announced a greater ongoing military presence in the Northern Territory. Those purported tensions appear to no longer be an issue or at least not one to foment great conflict.
Should we dramatically escalate ties with the USA? Perhaps not. However, the purported need to dramatically disengage from one of our ANZUS partners is overstated, even based on an illusion.
It is quite silly of Paul Keating to say that our relationship with Indonesia lacks structure and coherence and is dominated by transactional issues. This is clearly not the case.