Malcolm Turnbull takes his show on the road.

turnbull and wodowi dance

After playing to rave reviews from local audiences, our innovative, one man show, ‘A Malcolm For All Seasons’, is touring Germany, Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia via Jakarta where it is an overnight sensation.

No-one flings small change at Turnbull while shouting ‘here’s your Tsunami aid’; he appears neither to offend nor insult no-one although there is a tense moment when he and Jokowi remove their ties. The last time a local politician and his pal were reported getting their kit off in public, both he and his driver ended up in prison.

In February, Malaysia’s highest court upheld a five-year prison sentence for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a sodomy charge thereby crushing any viable political opposition to its Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia since 1957.

Power still resides with the party’s chairperson, Megawati Soekarnoputri, as she reminded Jokowi publicly, in April, at his party’s congress. He owed his presidency to her support, she said, ignoring her own links with the military and neglecting Washington’s active support including helping discover unflattering things about his opponent during the election campaign. These matters aside, it’s a fair call.

‘It goes without saying that the president and vice president must toe the party line,’ says former president Megawati, daughter of Indonesia’s late founding president, Soekarno, publicly demonstrating once more her power over Widodo whose pre-election reputation for probity had earned him Mr Clean.

One of a tarnished Widodo’s first acts of office was to mount an assault on Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, the KPK, dashing his supporters’ hopes. Mr Clean became Mr Weak. Praising the efforts of successive Indonesian governments to clean up corruption, Andrew Robb reckons they are now on top of it. Yet the police chief Widodo installed was one of those listed by the KPK for investigation.

DFAT secretary, Peter Varghese, goes one better, bravely claiming one of the ‘seminal developments of the past two decades is the success of Indonesia’s democracy’. Too many hackathons can destroy a man’s perception and judgement.

Protectionism is the current Indonesian line to toe in trade. Jokowi has been busily raising tariffs on more than a thousand items and looks around anxiously to see if Turnbull has brought Free Trade power ranger Andrew Robb with him. Next week? He laughs politely at Turnbull’s invitation to join the TPP. English cannot convey the subtlety of his refusal. In Bahasa Indonesia there are at least 12 ways to say ‘No’ and many ways to say ‘Yes, but I mean no’.

Indonesian has raised its import tariff on meat from 5 to 30% to protect local business. Turnbull wants a clear commitment on the live cattle trade which Indonesia is not prepared to give. Populist, protectionist Jokowi, who is riding a wave of disappointment in opinion polls, is hoping, at least, to absorb some of Turnbull’s fabled charisma. An official trails the profusely perspiring PM through the market with a roll of paper towels.

Trade Minister Robb will follow with a mob of around 400 hopefuls and hangers-on next week. Our largest trade delegation to Indonesia ever is not a Turnbull ‘innovation’ nor the result of any Wyatt Roy/Julie Bishop hackathon, but an onslaught originally scheduled for March. A postponement was thought prudent while Widodo had an Australian or two to execute. Whether these state-sanctioned killings improved the image of the president or his leadership, as he hoped, or not, imports continued to fall, despite his signal that a tough guy was in charge.

Indonesia’s imports last month totalled US$12.96 billion (S$17.7 billion), 17.4 per cent lower than the same month a year ago. Two-way trade between Indonesia and Australia was just $11.8 billion in 2014. New Zealand with a population of four million is our bigger trading partner. Even Andrew Robb admits that Australia has 360 businesses in Dubai yet only 200 in the whole of Indonesia. The ASEAN region has a population of 620 million and an economic output of US$2.5 trillion, yet it accounts for less than 5 per cent of Australia’s total outward foreign investment. Perhaps Turnbull can trade on his novelty. It’s a tactic which is still working at home.

Indonesians marvel at this suave ‘bule’ (white person) who favours Canali and Salvatore Ferragamo. How different he is to the closet yobbo and notoriously eager trouble-seeker Tony Abbott.  How couth, how handsome, how very agile. Unhappiness with Australia, however, still festers over Abbott’s high handed dismissal of phone bugging of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesian diplomats see Turnbull as just a new head on the Abbott python.

Aggravating the strained relationship is Abbot’s asylum-seeker policy with its turn backs and its secrecy. It was a  bad idea of his to link tsunami relief aid to a plea for clemency for two Australian drug dealers. Turnbull’s new image may be refreshing but there remains a lot for the new Australian PM to put right.

Naturally, the Malco Jokowi show, subtitled ‘resetting the relationship’ is a huge success with the two craven self-publicists and attention-seekers who quickly establish a common bond based on both being businessmen and both being weak leaders doing the bidding of powerful right wing vested interests. Both know a bit about the local plantation timber industry. Both leaders have domestic economies heading for recession. Both have a lot of catching up to do. It is the first bilateral meeting of leaders of the two nations since the April executions of the Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Turnbull has a rich history of relationship building to draw upon in ‘re-setting Australia’s relationship with Indonesia’. ‘He’s a prick,’ says Nick Whitlam. His partnership with Whitlam ended badly as did his relationship with ‘Diamond Jim’ McClelland who sees Turnbull as a bowel motion. Deploying his more restrained bedside manner, Dr Brendan Nelson diagnosed a narcissistic personality disorder.

‘He says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset. He has no empathy.’

He’s a turd,’ said former Labor senator Jim McClelland. ‘He’s easy to loathe, he’s a shit, he’d devour anyone for breakfast, he’s on the make, he’s cynical, he’s offensively smug …’

With such testimony on the public record backing him to the hilt, what could possibly go wrong for Turnbull? His wealth? Quickly the talk turns to how furniture tycoon millionaire Joko maintains his image as a humble man of the people, a theme to which an openly perspiring Turnbull warms immediately only to discover himself on his feet as his host sweeps him up in a ‘spontaneous blusukan’ which turns out to be a walkabout to a batik factory where adoring crowds go wild for a touch of  his outstretched hand. Blusukan is from the Javanese for getting into something messy.

‘Blusukan’ is the secret of my common touch, Mal, beams Jokowi. They are in the Tanah Abang Market, once a notorious hangout for criminals, not too far from the National Palace. A man is on hand to dab the Turnbull face with a paper towel made from pulped virgin rain forest.

Turnbull reprises his party piece, warbling about ‘exciting’ times prompted by innovation and technical disruption while a batik worker’s recent evidence in an enquiry into worker exploitation eloquently supplies some of the real context of doing business in Indonesia.

‘It takes four days to nglawong (wax) a piece of batik cloth,’ said Sukemi, a traditional artisan, adding that she received Rp 50,000 (US$3.50) a day as a seasoned worker in the industry. An established batik company, can sell the same piece of cloth for up to Rp 2 million.

As Sukemi’s evidence suggests, doing business with Indonesia will never be the plain sailing favoured by ‘big picture’ Prime Minister Turnbull or his Trade Minister Robb but will involve a lot of nitty gritty hard graft and local partnerships. Hobart boat builder Incat would like to supply ferries and patrol boats to help Widodo achieve his goal of building maritime infrastructure. It sees $500 million of opportunity. Yet the Indonesians are interested in the skill transfer which may be obtained from a joint production in Indonesia.

University of Indonesia (UI) International relations head, Makmur Keliat responds neatly to Turnbull’s agenda of economic ties, terrorism and undocumented migrants, by expressing his country’s main hope that together, the governments can come up with an international and ‘innovative’ mechanism for handling the heavy flow of asylum seekers.

‘No country can handle this issue alone. Australia should be willing to cooperate with Indonesia in this case, instead of letting it burden Indonesia alone.’

With a trade relationship bigger than the Indonesian, New Zealand is also bothered by our Border Protection and off-shoring practices. The riots on Christmas Island, Peter Dutton seeks to reassure us, are caused by ‘hardened criminals, murderers and rapists’. What the challenged Immigration Minister fails to add are that these ‘criminals’ have served their sentences but have refused to be deported to New Zealand. As Bronwyn Bishop says of ambassador Joe Hockey, Dutton does say some funny old things. Or so seems to be the view of his indulgent party.

The rest of Australia would like to know why it is such a good idea to lock those Kiwis refusing to be deported up with refugees. Dutton, naturally is not going to explain and ruin the business model of the deportee. Doubtless it is also an ‘On Christmas’ and an operational matter. Yet unless we are at war with New Zealand and we have forgotten to tell the Kiwis, our government ought to quickly deal with what threatens to be more than a blip in our trans-Tasman relationship. Already Dutton has helped to create a major diplomatic furore.

Peter Dutton and Eric Abetz join forces late in the week when it is clear that loyal Liberal Party deputy Julie Bishop was exchanging little more than emoji messages to Malcom Turnbull, a situation which leads to an effective question in the house from Tanya Plibersek.

‘It’s not just Labor saying Julie Bishop has questions to answer about her involvement in the stalking and bringing down of a prime minister,” she tells reporters. ‘Her own party are saying she has questions to answer, that it’s plain that she was up to her neck in the bringing down of Tony Abbott.’

In a touching show of bipartisan support for her historical record, the Labor Party obligingly reproduces evidence which has been deleted from the Foreign Minister’s website. Ms Bishop is forced to confirm her top adviser was at what she coyly calls a ‘drinks’ evening where the decision was made for Malcolm Turnbull to challenge for the leadership. While the public appears to have little appetite for this disclosure, it does reveal something of the tensions still part of the fabric of that fabled ‘broad church’ the Liberal Party, a term reserved to cover the inherent contradiction at its base between those who fight tooth and nail to keep things as they are if they can’t turn the clock back to the 1950s and those who are up for a bit of a change. Even if they are not prepared to commit themselves publicly to the nature of that change.

The week begins with reform monger, taxation ethicist and reformed former on-water terminator the totally revamped and made-over Annabel Crabb approved soft and cuddly Scott Morrison lecturing reporters on how important it is to get past ‘what has been for the last eight years, the time of gotcha politics and rule in and rule out’.

What this means precisely is anyone’s guess but let’s call it for now, at least, Turnbull’s 21st century agile, innovative, creative evasiveness. While Paris for good reason, may not prove the venue for the next round of climate change talks, the Australian delegation will be well-equipped by combining, as it does surely in its Treasurer, its Environment Minister and his Prime Minister, the new evasiveness with the old flip-flop. Commitment is so yesterday. Next thing you know, you are all tied up in accountability. Eternally keeping all our options on the table makes us a resilient and agile nation. Just don’t pin us down to anything. This is the message of the Turnbull Show on its world debut.