Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 18:37 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 18:37 | SYDNEY

The Australian who loved Indonesia


Graeme Dobell

16 May 2011 14:19

Indonesia can direct Australia's regional dreams or dominate its nightmares, and Jamie Mackie spent his professional life explaining both sides of that complex reality.

Mackie's fascination for the extraordinary richness, diversity and subtlety of Indonesia meant he was one of life's natural enthusiasts, attacking the world with a lop-sided grin, a sharp eye, and ever ready to include others in the fun. A colleague or acquaintance would be greeted with a hearty 'Comrade' or 'Tuan', and then the talk would turn to gossip as well as the guts of the latest foreign policy conundrum. Jamie knew that you can't understand the policy if you don't keep track of the personalities.

As a man who loved wine nearly as much as he loved talking, Jamie would have been sorry to have missed the various wakes to honour all that he crammed into his 86 years. And he would have been quietly chuffed to have scored weighty obituaries in both The Canberra Times and The Jakarta Post, papers in the capitals of the two countries he loved. Here is the Jakarta Post obit.

As Hal Hill and Chris Manning write in the Canberra Times, Jamie was one of the most influential figures in guiding Australia's post-war Asian engagement: 'For more than 50 years he was arguably the most informed, persistent and effective advocate for greater understanding of, realism towards and respect for our nearest neighbours.'

As well as his achievements in turning Australia's eyes to Asia, Jamie Mackie was one of those who helped reform the way Australia thought about itself. In the fight against the White Australia policy in the 1960s, Jamie was a founder of the Immigration Reform Group, which fought for a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

One of the Jamie Mackie bequests to those who must grapple with the relationship between these most unlikely neighbours is the paper he wrote for Lowy in 2007, 'Australia and Indonesia: Current problems, Future Prospects'.

In just 150 pages, he packs in a lot from a lifetime – including just a few of the anecdotes that made him such a resource for generations of Australian journalists in Asia. He tells the story of Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Mick Shann, being summoned by President Sukarno during the difficult years of Indonesia's armed Konfrontasi against Malaysia from 1963 to 1966 (Jamie wrote the book on Confrontation).

Sukarno wanted to send a message back to Australia's Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who'd made 'an unusually critical public comment about Indonesia'. Jamie summarized Sukarno's message to Canberra this way: 

I want your Prime Minister to know that I have been careful not to let popular feelings about Australia become stirred up by the events of Konfrontasi despite our basic differences over it. I permitted the burning of the British embassy and the harassing of British diplomats in 1963 because of the neo-colonialist character of Malaysia and because our aim in confronting them has been to drive the British out of their military bases there which pose a threat to Indonesia. But I have never permitted any such attacks on Australians or the Australian embassy. The British can be forced out of Southeast Asia, but we know that you in Australia cannot. You are part of our region and we both have to learn how to live alongside each other.

The problem of Canberra and Jakarta just managing to get along was a central issue of the Mackie experience. He'd argued through the decades of agony over East Timor and two eras when Australian and Indonesian troops were shooting at each other (during Confrontation and one deadly fire-fight on the East Timor-West Timor border during the Australian-led intervention in 1999). The scars of that long experience produced a series of DOs and DON'Ts to help Australia think about Indonesia: 

  • Do remember that our relations with Indonesia are not just narrowly bilateral and must always be framed by the broader background of relations with ASEAN and East Asia.
  • Don't put too much reliance on close personal relations between our heads of government and foreign ministers. National interest always beats the accidents of personal chemistry, although 'trust is undoubtedly a crucially important element'.
  • Do keep in mind that disputes or political issues are rarely sharply black and white: 'the shades of grey are often the most important to be able to recognize and differentiate'.
  • Don't resort to 'megaphone' diplomacy or let our overall policies towards Indonesia be made hostage to this or that obsession with a particular issue.
  • Don't be fooled by shallow talk of a 'special relationship' between Australia and Indonesia. 'But, conversely, don't let an excessive stress on deep-seated cultural differences between us mislead us into thinking that mutual understanding of each other is impossible. It is merely hopelessly difficult at times.'

The last point is the dry, amused voice of experience from a man who, in his own life, had the most marvellous special relationship with Indonesia. Vale Jamie Mackie. We are a good man down.