Comment: Indonesia, Australia and the Bali 9 - when symbolism becomes substance

A man carry a Myuran's painting "satu hati, satu rasa di dalam cinta"at Wijaya Pura port in Cilacap, Central Java, Indonesia, Tuesday, April 28, 2015.

The same foreign policy posture adopted by the Abbott government towards Indonesia has been wielded by the Widodo government towards Australia, with chilling effect.

The past week was one in which symbolism was heavy in politics, and it surrounded the reality of two Australians and six other men being executed in Indonesia.

Much in politics is symbolic – when a politician announces a child care or educational policy, she or he invariably must be seen surrounded by children or at a school or day care centre.  Similarly, any policy announcement of new infrastructure invariably will see a politician in a hi-vis vest and wearing a hard hat.

Symbolism isn’t just about how things are said, it is also about things done by politicians. This is especially the case when it is just for the sake of appearances. That occurred this week with the Indonesian President Joko Widodo refusing to grant clemency for either Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, or the other six men because he wished to present himself as tough.

The symbolism was about appearing tough on crime and also tough towards Australia.

The symbolism to appear tough on crime resulted in eight men being murdered by a state for no discernible purpose, for there is no evidence anywhere that the death penalty reduces crime. But the need to appear tough towards Australia resulted in the last few hours of Chan and Sukumaran being treated with contempt.

The initial refusal by the Indonesian government for Chan and Sukumaran to have their personal spiritual advisor with them was something only they, among the 8 prisoners, were subject to. It was an obvious sign to the Australian government that it not only saw no reason to listen to its entreaties but that it also could afford to publicly treat Australian citizens with contempt. 

This pathetic bit of symbolism was carried out on behalf of men too weak to confront the corruption in their legal system and government only served to make the last day for Chan and Sukumaran and for their families much worse than it ever should have been.

That’s the problem with political symbolism – too often it becomes reality and affects people’s lives for the worse.

Sometimes it is the situation where a government wishes to appear tough on “welfare cheats” and produces a policy in which everyone on welfare suffers, or it may be a case where a government wants to appear tough on asylum seekers and so it abuses the sovereignty of another nation, or it can be a case like we saw in Indonesia where the desire to appear tough meant an execution was tipped into torture.

For the Australian government, symbolism was required in its response to the Indonesian government. The contempt with which the Indonesian authorities and government showed the Australian citizens and the Australian government required a strong response.

In a sense this wasn’t unusual territory for the Abbott government, for much of its foreign policy has been based on symbolism. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Tony Abbott liked to talk big about how his government would be focused on “Jakarta not Geneva”.

It was a line on foreign policy that was purely directed toward a domestic audience.

The phrase was purely meant to symbolise that the Abbott government would care more about stopping asylum seekers than worrying about what an organisation like the UNHCR might think, or what its obligation were as a signatory to the UN convention on refugees.  

Such lack of concern rather bitterly came back to bite the Abbott government as it sought to appeal to Indonesia’s own commitment towards human rights.

Thus, the initial step after the executions was to recall our Indonesian ambassador. This was criticised by some as being just symbolic. That maybe so, but just because it is symbolic, does not mean it should not be done.

Certainly other actions could be pursued. The clear one involves trade – but the question to be asked is would restricting trade hurt Australia more than Indonesia?

One suspects however that the most likely outcome will be for the government to take a rather less open attitude towards any future negotiations and arrangements with Indonesia.

Certainly in this case there appears to have been little benefit in being “a close friend” of our northern neighbour.

For Australians the urge to do something is also strong. And some have pondered whether Australians should boycott holidaying in Bali. Given Indonesia is the destination for 12 percent of Australians travelling overseas for holidays, it certainly could have an impact that would be much more than symbolic.  

Others have suggested that we should not change our holiday plans because avoiding Bali would not hurt the Indonesian government but rather just affect the lives of poor Balinese workers. That, however, is a rather silly argument.

Australians do not owe the Bali tourism industry anything. You may as well argue that travelling to Bali for a holiday is wrong because it hurts the livelihood of those who work in Australian hotels and resorts who would have otherwise received your money.

The reality is nations go out of their way to make their nation appear inviting to foreign tourists. Indonesia this week treated Australian citizens with disdain – we don’t need to retaliate by being abusive, but we don’t need to carry on as though nothing happened. 

It is hard not to believe however that the symbolism will eventually diminish and normal relations will resume. We should hope it does. There is nothing to be gained from having an antagonistic relationship with Indonesia.

But perhaps after this week, the lesson might be that both Indonesia and Australia would be better off by not treating foreign policy as an occasion to deliver symbolism to its domestic audience.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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