GREG Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian, is an experienced and knowledgeable opinion writer on various aspects of Australian foreign policy but, from time to time, the heat of the near north — especially Indonesia and thereabouts — gets to him and he is disposed to wring his hands and be very agitated if he believes Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is being put at risk.

He is concerned at present with the threat, as he sees it, of the relationship being put at serious risk due to the leakage of people to Australia from West Papua which is part of Indonesia. Indeed, in his column in The Australian of 6 April, 2006, Sheridan asserts that “A key objective of Canberra, therefore, will be to make sure there is no ongoing flow of boat people from Papua to Australia.” He goes on to conclude that “We are not in crisis yet, but all the ingredients are there.”

This kind of alarmist rhetoric would carry more weight were Mr. Sheridan to address some questions flowing from his article or, indeed, had done so as part of the article. The most recent alarmism has a certain immediacy about it, as evidenced by Sheridan’s very first paragraph, viz. “Australia could be drifting towards a fearful crisis in its relations with Indonesia over West Papua. We are not there yet, rather we are exquisitely poised. If it turns out another group of Papuan asylum-seekers has arrived then the crisis begins.” It is a serious situation but I really do believe that Greg Sheridan could do with a couple of Bex and a good lie down. It is a time not for hysteria but sober reflection and carefully calculated action. I have no doubt that the foreign affairs boffins in Canberra were developing the options long before Greg Sheridan started to get all sweaty about it.

I am all for good relations with all countries, especially Indonesia, and I don’t want people being admitted to Australia except in our way and on our terms. I suspect that would be the view of the overwhelming majority of Australians. So what precisely does Mr. Sheridan expect the Australian Government to do to keep West Papuans out of Australia, whether they are “boat people” or people who seek to come here in some other illegal way? Do we blockade the West Papuan coast? What area do we blockade if they take off from some other point on the Indonesian coast?

Tilting at the wrong windmill

For my part, Greg Sheridan is tilting at the wrong windmill. The fact is that, as Sheridan readily and indeed warmly acknowledges in his column, West Papua is part of Indonesia and, as home to the Freeport mine, also a very remunerative part. So, ipso facto, it is Indonesia’s job to stop any future flow of West Papuans to Australia. As Sheridan readily concedes,  Australia does not want any West Papuan refugees because it would run the serious risk of destabilising Indonesia. So, the Indonesians don’t want any outflow of West Papuans; so, the Indonesians should stop it. Surely, it is their job in their territorial waters.

However, there is another twist to the tail of this tale. What if it transpires — and the evidence seems to be mounting in this regard — that the West Papuans have not always been treated at all kindly by the Indonesian security personnel?  For purposes of illustration, let us further assume that this treatment has been persistent and brutal. What do we do then? Turn a blind eye?  Perhaps John Howard can have a quiet word in the ear of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono whom Sheridan describes as “Indonesia’s estimable president” whose “goodwill toward Australia is palpable.” Clearly, if you enjoy the syrupy stuff then Sheridan is your man. However, the syrup would be more readily digestible if Sheridan’s reflections on this important issue were reflective rather than emotive, rigorously analytical rather than a tad glib and self-important.

Somewhere along the line — and sooner rather than later — we, Australia, may have to tell the Indonesians to stop any illegal movement from West Papua to Australia. Subject to knowing what the precise situation is in West Papua — of which DFAT and associated agencies would doubtless already have a good knowledge —  somewhere along the line, too, we may also have to tell the Indonesians to stop kicking the bejesus out of the West Papuans. This is, if — and I stress the if — there is substance to the suggestion that the Indonesians have been less than gentle with the West Papuans, as seems to have been the case as discussed below.

Greg Sheridan is quite right that the Indonesia/Australia relationship is of critical importance to both parties.  And that critical importance is why we must be always entirely open and honest with each other.  However, I almost get the impression from Sheridan’s article that he is fearful of us offending the Indonesians if we tell them the truth. Good allies must tell the truth to each other because an open, honest relationship is the only one that we can sensibly have with Indonesia or indeed with any other country. If it is not so Bill Leak’s next cartoon may show John Howard and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as dogs with the latter vigorously rogering the former.

I had a fit of the shudders

In short, I am critical of Sheridan’s column in The Australian of 6 April on three grounds in particular. First, he does not acknowledge what I believe to be a central factor that it is primarily the responsibility of Indonesia to stop the illegal flow of West Papuans from their own country to Australia. Secondly, he makes absolutely no reference to the fact that the treatment of West Papuans in Indonesia has apparently been less than satisfactory. Thirdly, I did not enjoy the syrupy and unnecessary genuflections to Indonesia and its president. Indonesia is a great country with enormous potential — albeit some enormous challenges — and a seemingly competent president who is generally well disposed towards Australia.  However, Sheridan left me with the impression that Indonesia can do no wrong.  Reading some of his sentences I had a fit of the shudders that I was being confronted with sentiments of many wars ago — sentiments like “peace for our time”.

I very much hope that we do have peace for our time with Indonesia. If so, it will only come about by honest and diligent leaders reaching sensible and mutually beneficial accommodations. It will not be facilitated by strident and emotive journalism.

But all of this was phase one. No sooner had the ink dried on Sheridan’s copy than one of the more vocal and belligerent Indonesian parliamentarians, Djoko Susilo, told the Australian media that the Australian government should have sent a minister, not the head of Foreign Affairs (Michael Lestrange), to explain the new policy whereby any Papuan boat people would be processed offshore in Nauru, Manus or Christmas Island. Prime Minister Howard was quick to reply that this was but a first step and would be followed by visits to Djakarta by the Foreign Minister and, subsequently, the Prime Minister for discussions with the Indonesian President. Clearly, the underwear in Canberra was becoming a tad soggy by this time.

And then, as if a greater being had declared that it be so, the clouds cleared, Sheridan took his Bex and had a quick lie down and some new voices tinkled in the columns of the press. First, there was Tony Kevin, a retired diplomat whom I hope is as entertaining as his father, Charles Kevin, one of Australia’s pioneer diplomats. Kevin said that to mandatorily remove boat people to offshore processing centres would “… send the wrong message not only to a fairly benign Indonesian government but also to darker, more extreme nationalist elements. The message is that an Australian government can be threatened — indeed,  blackmailed — into abandoning essential values and interests.” Kevin concluded his piece by asserting that Canberra should tell Djakarta that they have a problem in West Papua because they are not “— sufficiently respecting the rights of the people there to civil liberties and a fair share of their natural resources.” Kevin added that the Indonesian leadership should be told that “If refugees seek protection here, we have no alternative but to consider their claims fairly and without political interference.” Well put, Tony Kevin.

Bungling, indecisive fools

Next in the queue was Michelle Grattan who has tweaked the nose of a few politicians in her time. She declared that our government has “— gone from strongly upholding its proper processes to falling all over itself to avoid upsetting the Indonesians.” How far, she asks, should Australia be prepared to go for the sake of good relations with Indonesia. The answer, of course, is implicit in the question — we want to be the very best of neighbours. That is, we want to be equals, honest neighbours. Not craven lackeys or bungling indecisive fools.

Then, finally, Michael Gordon and Mark Forbes remind us in The Age of 19 April, 2006, that all is indeed not well in West Papua as far as human rights are concerned. In fact, “… the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will examine allegations surrounding a four-year-old Papuan girl recently granted refugee status in Australia.”

For my part, I very much hope that we will have peace, continuing peace in our time with Indonesia. However, if that is to be so, it will only come about by honest and diligent leaders reaching sensible and mutually beneficial accommodations. It will not be facilitated by strident and emotive journalism of the kind canvassed earlier in this essay and nor will it be facilitated by craven agreement with everything that is sought. Indeed, our leaders need to remind themselves, too, that they really don’t need to jump at every shadow the Indonesians throw on the wall. Much as Messrs. Howard, Downer et al have domestic constituencies to assuage from time to time, so too do the Indonesians. So, the Indonesians may get a bit crabby and noisy now and then but more often than not they are probably talking not to us but to their own constituents.

And perhaps Greg Sheridan.