Friday 23 Oct 2020 | 07:58 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Oct 2020 | 07:58 | SYDNEY

Our strangely normal neighbour


Graeme Dobell

30 September 2011 09:30

The Australian relationship with Indonesia is being changed and challenged by the wonderful reality that these two extraordinarily different nations now share some central values. Indonesia and Australia largely agree on the golden norms of the modern global system, ranging from democracy and human rights to free trade, free speech and a free press.

Such a consensus has removed many of the no-go areas that bedeviled the dialogue between Jakarta and Canberra during the Suharto era. It wasn't a dialogue of the deaf so much as a chronic inability to agree on basic starting points. These days in Canberra and Jakarta, the political masters can often strike the same notes in talking about the rancid journalism they have to deal or how they are best placed to remedy the working defects of their political system. 

The idea of Indonesia and Australia as two 'normal' neighbouring democracies is one of the ideas running through the annual Indonesia Update in Canberra today and tomorrow. I've been a regular at the Update over its three decades and that agreed democratic starting point has changed the tone in many ways. 

During its early years, the Update sometimes felt like an attempt to peer through a bamboo curtain that started just north of Darwin; or, to adopt an Indonesian rather than a Chinese metaphor, an effort to discern the meaning of a wayang shadow show being staged by a puppet master called Suharto. 

The early Updates were an attempt to bridge differences. Huge differences, of course, still exist across the board, but the golden norms mean some of the starting points look similar. Consider the working premise of this year's Update:

Indonesia's place in the world is in flux. It has been reinvented as a large, stable and reasonably successful democracy (and G20 member) at a time when the international game has changed. ASEAN, for many years the bedrock of Indonesian foreign policy, is seen as a constraint by some Indonesian officials. Meanwhile the crucial relationships with China place strains on regional unity, while the new politics of global warming and carbon trading, the need to defuse violence in the name of Islam, and growing international flows of people pose new challenges to the Indonesian leadership. Indonesia has often been seen as punching below its weight in world affairs, and as a consumer rather than a producer of global trends and ideas. Underperformance of the education and legal systems makes it difficult for Indonesia to act on the world stage as its size merits. Yet the globalising influences are as strong there as anywhere.

Hmm, a democracy struggling with a globalising world? The crucial relationship with China? The new politics of global warming and flows of people across borders? Questions about the underperformance of schools and the legal system (perhaps even politicians)? Sounds just like Oz to me.

Photo by Flickr user Seema K K.