Thank God he’s not Abbott: Indonesia greets Turnbull


Agus Salim is a PhD candidate at the Asia Institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. His research is on Islam and identity politics in Indonesia’s foreign policy.


Tim Mann is the editor of Indonesia at Melbourne

Most Indonesian media depicted Malcolm Turnbulls rise to the top job as an opportunity to mend relations between Australia and Indonesia. Photo by Flickr user Veni.
Most Indonesian media depicted Malcolm Turnbull’s rise to the top job as an opportunity to mend relations between Australia and Indonesia. Photo by Flickr user Veni.


Malcolm Turnbull’s “coup” on 14 September to replace Tony Abbott as prime minister of Australia did not make a big splash in Indonesia. Government officials and politicians generally refrained from public comment, save for a brief note of congratulations from a foreign affairs spokesperson, who noted that President Joko Widodo had written to Prime Minister Turnbull.


Indonesia’s main papers, meanwhile, relegated the dramatic leadership ballot to page two or three at best, or else led their international pages with news of the switch. The same has been true of previous leadership coups – neither Gillard’s ousting of Rudd in 2010, nor Rudd’s return in 2013 were front page news in Indonesia’s largest paper, Kompas. But despite the limited coverage overall, it was clear that Indonesians will not be mourning Abbott’s demise.


Most media outlets depicted the leadership change as an opportunity to mend relations between the two countries after a series of diplomatic rows under Abbott’s leadership., for example, described Abbott’s fall as heralding as a new chapter in Indonesia-Australia relations. “Most [Indonesians] hope that the relationship between the two countries can be strengthened,” it said, “and that there will be no more tension caused only by the statements of leaders.”


It is no secret that Indonesians were deeply offended by Abbott’s linking of Australian tsunami aid to efforts to save Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from execution, and this perceived threat coloured almost all coverage of the leadership change. contrasted Abbott’s statement on tsunami aid with Turnbull’s comments on ABC’s Q&A program in February. Recounting the program, the piece said: “Turnbull stated that Indonesia is a sovereign country and could not be pressured. Though he hoped that the Bali Nine would be pardoned, he did not agree with confronting Indonesia.” It quoted Turnbull as saying: “No government likes being pushed around by another government.” sent Abbott off by listing five “controversies” that occurred under his leadership. These included refusing to apologise for the wiretapping revelations that emerged in 2013, the government’s asylum seeker boat turn-back policy, and allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers to turn back boats to Indonesia.


The Jakarta Post’s editor in chief, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, also criticised the outgoing prime minister, remarking: “One thing is for sure…the new prime minister is most assuredly not Abbott.” Meidyatama acknowledged that although Turnbull had made few public statements explicitly about Indonesia, the new prime minister “does seem to have a closer appreciation of Asia’s significance and Australia’s place in it.” He added: “his position seems more akin to that of Labor’s Kevin Rudd than that of either Abbott or John Howard, his presumed Liberal allies.”


Although most of the press covered Turnbull as simply “not-Abbott”, many also made attempts to understand the new Liberal leader. picked up on Turnbull’s views on same-sex marriage, describing him as a “moderate politician”. Kompas, though, ran the most extensive coverage. In a large feature on Turnbull on 16 September, the national broadsheet described him as distinct from Abbott on two key issues: same-sex marriage and climate change. The full-page feature also mentioned his leadership of the Australian Republican Movement.


Kompas also focused on Turnbull’s perceived superior economic credentials, and the paper rounded out its coverage with an editorial on Friday setting out the economic challenges facing the new prime minister. Turnbull’s challenge, it said, was to reverse the economic slowdown caused by falling mining export earnings and increase government performance. Although Kompas said it was not known how Turnbull would approach these challenges, he was expected to display a new style of leadership that was necessarily different from his predecessor, who “often repeated his statements and was prone to verbal gaffes”.


The other common thread in Indonesian coverage of the leadership change was one that featured in almost all international coverage of Tony Abbott’s ouster: a sense of bafflement as to why a prosperous country like Australia could have such unstable politics. “The recent change in prime ministers in Australia is a sign of the political instability in the country,” said Similarly, Kompas reflected that: “Malcolm Turnbull will become Australia’s fifth prime minister in the past eight years. The politics of the Kangaroo country during this period has been marked by political instability and leadership conflict in the ruling party.”


Finally, state-owned newswire Antara turned to a survey of Australian media headlines as part of its effort to understand Australia “replacing the prime minister in one night”. Finding much uniformity among Australian newspaper front pages, it noted the NT News had taken a different approach, running with “Rich Dude Becomes PM”.