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03 September 2014
by Duncan Graham

Bland words to save face

It's taken nine months to produce just 311 words that are supposed to create an 'understanding on a code of conduct' for security cooperation between Indonesia and Australia following spying revelations.

Note this is not a code of conduct, but an 'understanding on' a code of conduct'. Not even an 'understanding of..' This isn't English, its bafflegab.
With an output of just over one word a day, authors would have been sacked by their publishers; newspapers employing journalists with this level of productivity would have collapsed.

But this much heralded slice of bureaucratise signed last week (28 Aug) by two foreign ministers, Marty Natalegawa for Indonesia and Julie Bishop for Australia, was never going to be a Lincolnian call to higher purpose.

Its purpose was twofold - to save face, and let outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) retire next month (Oct) with grace having recovered his pride, clearing the scrub for an academic position in Australia.

Last year former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden - brave whistleblower or despicable traitor, depending on your perspective - revealed in The New York Times that Australia had been spying on its nearest neighbor.

Not just eavesdropping suspected bomb-makers but also the phones of SBY - "a dear and trusted friend" according to Ms Bishop - and his wife of 38 years Kristiani Herawati. The excuse? It was rumoured she'd been plotting to keep the presidency in the family.

Imagine the fury if we'd found that Indonesia's intelligence agencies had been listening to Margie Abbott's intimate chats with her spouse to learn about Liberal pre-selections. We'd be expelling the Indonesian ambassador and half his colleagues.

Unsurprisingly Indonesians were not amused, yet their reaction was surprisingly restrained. Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was withdrawn from Canberra and cooperation in some areas was put on hold. There were small demonstrations outside the Jakarta Embassy, but ambassador Greg Moriarty stayed put.

When authoritarian General Soeharto ruled Indonesia, Australian tourist flights to Bali were turned back when a 1986 newspaper article offended the president. That hurt.

Seasoned observers in both nations agree the August signing changes little; earlier demands for an Australian apology have not been met. The Jakarta Post editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat wrote that the document "presents little new other than to smooth over a political rift without really reducing suspicions or even furthering the trust between the two neighbours."

However he did concede that the 'joint understanding' made it easier for president elect Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to start afresh in relations with the Republic's southern neighbour.

The document has two clauses:

  • The Parties will not use any of their intelligence, including surveillance capacities, or other sources, in ways that would harm the interests of the Parties.
  • The Parties will promote intelligence cooperation between relevant institutions and agencies in accordance with their respective national laws and regulations.

What does this mean? Who defines 'harm' and how is it measured? It's a subjective term. What interests? Clearly it's an agreement a lawyer's clerks could shred. If it had been a tin of beans shoppers would be demanding a refund having found the can empty.

There are references back to the 2006 Lombok Treaty, a ten-point agreement tagged as a 'framework for security cooperation'.
Despite the grand title this is another pedestrian paper. It gives either party opportunities to create their own meanings of open-ended phrases like 'endeavouring to foster' and cooperation 'within the limits of their responsibility.' If there's a dispute the English text prevails.
Despite the flaws this is probably as good as it gets when it comes to negotiating agreements between two such radically different nations, cultures and political agendas.

A hard-nosed Indonesian negotiator might have pushed for no spying or trade sanctions would be imposed. Australia needs Indonesia far more than the reverse. But that was only going to happen with a new administration in Jakarta keen to display its machismo.

SBY, constantly lauded as the best Indonesian president Australia has had, was not inclined to be assertive, wanting settlement before his compulsory retirement after two five-year terms.
The Indonesian electorate's interest had also swung to other issues in the wake of the contested presidential election result.

This ensured Australian hands stayed on the keyboard for the word-a-day essay. If there are any Indonesian fingerprints on the page they're not visible to the naked eye.