Our minister for international embarrassment and diplomatic head kicking

In an article in The Age today Waheed Ali points out the difficulties of Tony Abbott’s latest ham-fisted and ill-timed incursion into international diplomacy.

At the heart of Abbott’s outburst was an assertion that Indonesia should in some way reciprocate for Australia’s $1b aid contribution following the tsunami by granting some clemency to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.  This undermines the whole concept of giving aid in the face of humanitarian tragedy. It also adds to the perception that is widely held in Indonesia that Australia is an international and diplomatic bully boy.

What Abbott is saying is “We will give you aid when you need it but we expect a pay back down the track.”  Worse still, he is saying  “We will choose the time and the size of the payback.”

Indonesia’s diplomatic response has been “no one responds well to threats”  and the new Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsud has described the issue as one of ” law and order.” Hardly promising responses to the Prime Minister.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsud
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsud

This is a significant problem for Australian efforts for clemency for the two prisoners. There seems to be widespread support within Indonesia for the execution of drug smugglers and for Indonesian President Joko Widod to grant clemency, he’s going to be able to do so without losing a significant amount of political skin.

 Indonesian President Joko Widodo
Indonesian President Joko Widodo

Granting clemency has the immense downside of making him look weak on law and order and granting clemency to Australian drug dealers may be particularly unpopular amongst Indonesian public.

He may now be seen to be giving in to threat is from a nearby neighbour. There are significant political downsides, and almost no political upside, for him in granting clemency.

Another real problem for Abbott is that the Indonesians may now anchor responsibility for the execution of  Chan and Sukumaran back to his threats.

The problem for Australia  (and for Chan and Sukumaran and the considerable team of people working on their behalf) is having a Prime Minister whose main skill, apart from sledging, is head-kicking. Abbott’s sole reaction to the world around him is to fight.

His strategy for dealing with the Senate in 2015 is informative “We won’t pick fights with the Senate that we cannot win.” It’s not a matter of negotiating, consulting in compromising, its always a matter of fighting.

 Tony Abbott: everything is a fight
Tony Abbott: everything is a fight

So, his response to the Indonesian situation is to come out swinging, to the immense dismay of the people who have been negotiating with the Indonesians over an extended period of time.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop must be furious with the new  “consultative and collegiate” Tony Abbott, after all this is her portfolio and Abbott shouldn’t be interfering.

 Julie Bishop will probably  a few words to say to Tony Abbott
Julie Bishop will probably a few words to say to Tony Abbott

Where is Peter Credlin when you need her?

  "Tony just stay out of it. Okay?"
“Tony just stay out of it. Okay?”

When I was in Jakarta some years ago, there was an interesting and informative diplomatic showdown between the World Bank and the Indonesian government over the disappearance of some billions of dollars in foreign aid. Clearly, the Indonesian government was embarrassed by this but the World Bank did not sink the boots in. There are a series of very delicately phrased staging  posts that de-escalated the situation and allowed a diplomatic compromise to be negotiated that did not lead to the Indonesian government losing face.

When you look carefully at the strategy that was being used to save Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran it follows the same pattern.

Rather than an outright confrontation, there is widespread public and diplomatic pressure being exerted through Christian and Muslim leaders, Australian jurors, Australian government diplomats, the families of the two prisoners and a wide range of demonstrations of public sympathy within Australia.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, the Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad of the Australian National Imams Council and cleric Hassan Elsetohy
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, the Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad of the Australian National Imams Council and cleric Hassan Elsetohy

All this would be to no avail without the critical ingredient of a series of diplomatic staging post that allow the Indonesian government t retreat to a position other than execution. These staging posts need to be small, progressive and persistent, allowing a series of concessions that appear reasonable and don’t involve losing face.

The first of these was to suggest that there may have been some administrative mistakes made in the processing of their case. Significantly this was followed by a decision to delay the removal of the two prisoners to the island where they would be executed. So the process appeared to be working.

What Abbott has done is to disrupt the strategy completely by reducing everything to a win lose situation.

This is the new collegiate and consultative Tony Abbott. He is clearly not consulting with his colleague Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and he may have undermined the best efforts of a group of dedicated people who wish to save these two foolish young men from a barbaric death.

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