Every few years the Australian public is outraged by the incarceration of one of its citizens in Southeast Asia for drug trafficking. In the past decade, newspaper headlines have repeatedly run photo essays and long features on Australian drug traffickers languishing in Southeast Asian prison cells.
The most recent coverage has been focused on the so-called Bali Nine, a group of young Australians apprehended in 2005 and convicted for drug trafficking in Indonesia. Last week the two ringleaders of the group lost their appeals for presidential clemency in Indonesia.
The two men, Myuran Sukumaran and Adrew Chan, are now “next in line” to be executed.
Public vigils were held across Australia last week and news media have been consumed by the sentencing of the two men. Any thought that Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo might have of granting clemency is likely to have been quashed by his declining popularity in his first 100 days since taking office. Among the reasons for this slump, his decision to scrap fuel subsidies. The death penalty in Indonesia is popular and the past president used it to leverage his popularity. Under the guise of “firmness,” Jokowi appears to be employing a similar modus operandi.
For Australia’s foreign policy in Indonesia, this causes problems.
Canberra has had a tougher than usual relationship with Jakarta in recent years. Revelations in late 2013 that Australia had spied on Indonesia’s former president Susilo Bambang Yughoyono, his wife, and other senior government officials including current Vice President Jusuf Kalla, was a major blow to relations.
Other executions of foreign nationals this year, including a Brazilian and a Dutch man, led those countries to recall their ambassadors. Canberra will feel pressure to do the same.
In 2005, Australian man Van Tuong Nguyen was executed in Singapore for drug trafficking. At the time, Tony Abbott, then minister for health, said that “people do need to understand that drug trafficking is a very serious offence and it has heavy penalties in Australia and it has even more drastic penalties overseas as we have been reminded today.”
The then Prime Minister John Howard gave a stern warning to all Australians to stay away from drugs. A warning that Australia, one of the highest users of recreational drugs in the world, seems unable heed.
Australia is today facing its own epidemic of methamphetamine and other drugs. The epidemic encourages trafficking from Southeast Asia and fuels Australian party-tourism to Southeast Asian states. The current publicity around these sentences is perhaps the best time for Canberra to crack down on the flow of narcotics within Australia and launch an all-out assault on lax attitudes to drug consummation. That domestic approach should be coupled with improved cooperation on counter-narcotics in Southeast Asia.
The difficulty for the Australian government is that there are dozens more Australians facing drug charges in Southeast Asia, some in countries that also have the death penalty. Once such cases reach the domestic media they become points of national pride, with neither side able to hold a constructive dialogue. In effect, the incarcerated become hostages to a cause.
Cleaning up Australia’s domestic drug attitudes would go a long way to making sure other young Australian’s don’t face the death penalty. And that would make the job of Australia’s diplomats (who per capita still make up one of the smallest diplomatic corps in the world) much easier.