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Finding a common ground

By Duncan Graham - posted Tuesday, 20 June 2006

“Dr Yudhoyono … has now become more aware of the ‘internal dynamics’ of Australian politics. The president has said to me: ‘Presidents and prime ministers go, but at the end of the day these two cultures must work together’” -report in the Australian media attributed to Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono.

“The relationship … is a complex one because we are very different societies, very, very different - you could hardly find two societies more different,” Prime Minister John Howard said on Australian radio.

Howard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are due to meet on Batam Island this month. Their job: to weld a patch over the buckled relationship, keep it afloat and set course for a new treaty that can withstand the inevitable storms ahead.


Success will depend much on both men’s real understanding of each other’s homeland politics and cultures.

Although they’re supposed to have a warm personal relationship - “mates” in the Aussie vernacular - the two come from radically different backgrounds.

The sixth Indonesian president is a former general who has been in politics only seven years. He leads a minor political party and has to rely on coalitions to implement policy as Indonesia toys with democracy. He’s a Javanese Muslim whose father was in the military, as are relatives on his wife’s side. His eldest son is the army.

John Winston (as in Churchill) Howard (67 next month and 10 years the senior) is steeped in the Western democratic tradition. His antecedents are British and he’s a Methodist (Protestant). His dad ran a garage.

Howard is a former solicitor who has been in parliament for 32 years - the last 10 as the nation’s 25th PM. He’s considered one of the nation’s most successful and canny politicians with a reputation for taking tough decisions. His Liberal Party holds power in the House of Representatives and the Senate and is widely considered responsible for the nation’s non-stop economic boom.

Despite the geographic closeness, Australians know little about their neighbour. What they do know is mostly negative, particularly since the Bali bombs. Even Australians who have never left their country can be experts.


Ordinary Australians reacted with great compassion to the Aceh tsunami and the Yogya earthquake, giving generously. But they have been angered by stories of aid going astray, extortion and hostility to foreigners trying to help.

Poaching by Indonesian fishermen in Australia’s northern waters - a minor story in Indonesia - is a major running sore in Australia.

Judged by the raw comments on commercial talkback radio and letters to the editor, many seem to consider Indonesia a land of losers, an ungrateful, corrupt and maladministered nation driven by primitive superstitions, doomed to be a mendicant forever.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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