On 23 May, Anthony Albanese was sworn in as Australia’s new prime minister, after the Labor Party secured enough seats to form government and defeat the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition that has led the country for the past nine years.
Australian leaders regularly echo Paul Keating’s famous line that “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia”. Albanese, too, has said strengthening the relationship with Indonesia will be a priority, and pledged to make the country his next overseas visit after the Quad leaders’ meeting that he is attending in Tokyo this week.
But these kinds of warm sentiments are not always reciprocated in Indonesia.
On Monday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo eventually congratulated the new Australian prime minister on his victory, while also thanking outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his friendship and efforts to advance Indonesia-Australia cooperation. Notably, this came after a series of other world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had already acknowledged Albanese’s victory on Sunday.
Indonesian media reporting on Morrison’s loss has thus far been relatively straightforward. Most outlets reported the facts of the election outcome and there have only been a few opinion pieces and analyses about what the change in government might mean for Indonesia.
Several outlets offered profiles of the new prime minister, most referring to Albanese’s humble upbringing. Republika ran a translation of an Associated Press profile that highlighted the over-representation of people of British descent in the Australian parliament, and noted that non-Anglo Celtic Albanese would be leader in the House of Representatives, while Malaysian-born Penny Wong would be leader in the Senate.
Former Jakarta Post editor-in-chief and now Antara director Meidyatama Suryodiningrat penned one of the most detailed analyses. He noted that Labor prime ministers tend to have a reputation for being more open to international engagement, particularly with Asia. He stated that Albanese and new Foreign Minister Wong have demonstrated over the past year that they understand the importance of Indonesia as a neighbour and a central country in Southeast Asia.
In general, he said, Indonesia can expect a lot from the new government. Many public statements have encouraged optimism, and the new Labor government shares the Jokowi administration’s interest in strengthening economic collaboration, as well as in tourism and climate change.
But he did point to a number of areas of concern, in particular, Australia’s increasingly hard-line rhetoric on China.
He noted that whichever party is in power, Australia will always prioritise its alliance with the US and UK, recalling that it was Julia Gillard’s Labor government that first allowed US troops to be based in Darwin – a move that caused some concern in Indonesia. A key difference between Indonesia and Australia, he said, was that Jakarta wants to create a peaceful Southeast Asian region through multilateralism, without conflict between superpowers, while Canberra will always prioritise its alliance with western countries.
He also commented that given her background, new Foreign Minister Wong “should understand Indonesia and Southeast Asia”, but also observed that the foreign policy debate with Marise Payne ahead of the election focused almost entirely on the Pacific, and Indonesia barely received a mention. He also warned that Indonesia will need to watch Wong carefully, and that lapses in communication, such as Australia’s failure to adequately consult Indonesia over the formation of the AUKUS alliance, cannot be allowed to happen again.
Indonesia’s most established broadsheet, Kompas, covered the election in considerable detail, highlighting that “the party that often loses elections because of internal disunity” had won the election over its concern for tackling climate change. The summary of the article noted that: “Environmental issues are often considered the concerns of the elites or hippies. But in Australia, both businesspeople and ordinary citizens were focused on mitigating the climate crisis, leading to a change in government.”
The article recounted Australia’s recent floods and bushfires said that Morrison had failed to take the opportunity to develop more sustainable industry. The article also noted that Albanese had secured victory by paying more attention to issues affecting minorities, particularly Indigenous Australians, and by better addressing the concerns of women.
The Jakarta Post wrote a very upbeat editorial welcoming the new prime minister, strangely stating that Indonesia “had a good run with prime ministers from the Liberal-National coalition” over the past nine years. This is an interesting interpretation of history, given how unpopular Tony Abbott’s linking of Australian tsunami aid to efforts to save Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and refusal to apologise for the phone-tapping scandal were in Indonesia.
The editorial nevertheless noted that recent leaders have been able to overcome occasional flare-ups in the bilateral relationship, and that “gone are the days when a single issue might undermine our relationship”. The editorial concluded by commenting that it hoped Australia’s renewed focus on addressing climate change might encourage Indonesia to take stronger action too.
BBC Indonesia also published a piece that included some examination of the implications of Labor’s victory for Indonesia, which was then picked up by Detik and Tempo. It quoted Universitas Nasional Australian studies academic Harry Darmawan, who said Indonesia should be optimistic about Albanese’s win, given historically warm relations with Australia when it is led by Labor governments. Harry also expressed some wariness about the AUKUS alliance, but said he appreciated Australia’s efforts to travel to Indonesia to reassure the country soon after it was announced.
Media Indonesia also described Morrison’s defeat as “good news for Indonesia” and for the Australia-Indonesia relationship. The article quoted Universitas Padjadjaran academic Teuku Rezasyah, who said “Albanese will continue the tradition of the Australian Labor Party, which is realistic about developments in Indonesia”.
While detailed reflections on the Australian election outcome were not common, Tempo did find space to run one of the surprise stories of the polls on Saturday: the election of Malaysian-born one-time dolphin trainer Sam Lim in the seat of Tangney in Western Australia.
Overall, despite some caution regarding the AUKUS alliance, commentary in Indonesia has generally been optimistic. This suggests the new government has an excellent opportunity to create renewed and closer ties with Indonesia and relegate the tensions of the Abbott government to the past. But it will need to take positive steps, and soon, to signal that it serious about re-engaging.