Australia’s conservatism and unilateralism

Pierre Marthinus
Lecturer in International Political Economy
Bina Nusantara University


The concept of Tex(aus)tralia argues that Canberra’s foreign policy and security strategies will continue to mirror the blunders made by the United States under president George W. Bush.
First, the term conservatism refers to Australia’s attachment to out-of-date values and institutions, “old world” alliances and a backward looking search for a sense of safety, security and stability.

Second, unilateralism refers to Australia’s preference for tackling regional and bilateral issues through unilateral policies and actions. Interestingly, Canberra’s conservatism prefigures its rejection of multilateralism; dictating that Australia will continue to prefer and prioritize obsolete far-flung security arrangements over newer regional alignments that are more inclusive, comprehensive, innovative and relevant to its constantly evolving strategic environment. An over-reliance on trans-Atlantic powers heavily invested and entangled in Middle East affairs dictates that strategic interests in the immediate region will be addressed autonomously.

Some notable examples of Australian unilateralism regarding Indonesia include; (1) the granting of asylum to 46 Papuans arriving by boat in 2006, (2) the cutting off of beef supplies ahead of Ramadhan due to animal rights issues in 2011, (3) the placement of US troops in Darwin in 2011, (4) Australian plans to purchase boats directly from local Indonesian fishermen (as if Indonesia was an Australian province) in 2011, and (5) the latest Operation Sovereign Border repeatedly entering Indonesian waters and violating territorial sovereignty.

Despite their bilateral effects, Australian policies and actions were consistently made absent any consultation with its Indonesian counterpart.

Last, interventionism refers to Australia’s unapologetic preference for interference and intervention into the domestic affairs of other countries, both through blatant and subtle forms of violence.

In the same way that conservatism produces unilateralism, unilateralism begets interventionism: relying entirely on one’s own power makes rational thinking “survivalist”, and everything then becomes framed in Manichean extremes of “live or die”, “good or evil”, “devastation here or bringing the war there”, “closed borders or a flood of immigrants” and “turn back the boats or be forced into one sailing back to Britain”.

This was understandably the same “survival mode” thought characterizing US thought in the wake of the devastating 9/11 tragedy — what could be called the “lonely power” syndrome; a sense of total abandonment, helplessness and distrust of others in the fight to survive, let alone provide safety, security and stability.

Some notable examples of Australian interventionism affecting Indonesia include; (1) the military intervention against Indonesia during Konfrontasi in Sarawak between 1964-1966, (2) Australian-led intervention into East Timor in 1999, (3) unapologetic spying into Indonesia’s inner circle as revealed in 2013 and (4) repeated breaches of Indonesian territorial sovereignty during Operation Sovereign Borders.

For Australians reading this article and finding themselves wondering “are we then supposed to do nothing?” I must stress that interventionism is not a policy preference; it is a mental inability to imagine policies and courses of action outside the extremes of intervention and inaction, despite the availability of numerous middle-ground alternatives.

Globally, Australia’s staunch alliance with the US makes it one of the most recognizable faces of global interventionism, and as evidenced by the Bali and Australian Embassy bombings, a magnet for terrorist attacks. Furthermore, the presence of US military assets in the country makes Australia a prime target for a nuclear attack should a direct US-China military conflict break out.

Regionally, interventionism characterizes Australia’s engagement with its immediate neighbors. Canberra maintains a developmental aid “choke hold” on Papua New Guinea, and is establishing developmental-cum-espionage missions into Indonesia’s Papua provinces.

Australia’s unilateral and regional grandstanding tendencies in the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) have offended several of its member states and spurred the development of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as an alternative and preferable regional political body — for the simple, obvious and understandable reason that it excludes Australia. Since 2006, Fiji has been engaged in an open row with Australia and expelled Australian diplomats in 2009 for meddling in Fiji’s internal affairs and for lobbying hard against Fiji-led regional initiatives.

Today, Timor Leste is bringing Australia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of unethical spying, intervention and the rigging of the Timor Gap negotiations in Canberra’s favor. By standing up to Australian interventionism, the small nations of Fiji and Timor Leste have exhibited outsize mettle. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Indonesia under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In summary, Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders is no outlier; it is the norm, the rule, and the epitome of contemporary Australian foreign and security policy thought (blunders). The fact that a military conflict might be looming in the future is deeply distressing, but it would be much better for the Garuda of Indonesia to enter it screeching, clawing and biting wholeheartedly than to just passively endure injury.

The fact that Yudhoyono has directed the ambassador to return to Canberra, bending over backwards to “normalize” Australian relations, indicates that Indonesian sovereignty comes with a price tag, and a rather cheap one.

In dealing with Australia, the incoming Indonesian leadership needs to better understand Canberra’s core values, exercise greater reciprocity and rehearse two very important English words; battle stations.