Outgoing Defence boss Dennis Richardson has warned that the jailing of the Christian governor of Jakarta for blasphemy may represent the first signs of Islamic extremist influence in Indonesian politics.
Mr Richardson, who retired on Friday after nearly half a century at centre of Australian foreign and security policy, stressed it was too early to say whether extremism was entering Indonesia’s traditionally pluralist politics but said the question was “at the sharp end of what we should be watching”.
The Defence Department secretary, who has also served as ASIO chief, Washington Ambassador and Foreign Affairs head, also warned that any shift to electronic voting would force Australia to “invest enormously” to safeguard its elections against state-sponsored hacking.
In his speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, Mr Richardson mounted a strong defence of the US alliance in the age of Donald Trump and took a swipe at commentators such as former prime minister Paul Keating who have argued Australia should distance itself from the US as China rises.
He said such a view was “inconsistent with the facts and lacks logic or purpose”.
“Some, including former decision-makers, suggest that we should retain the alliance, but with the US in more of a stand-off arrangement in the region, engaging when needed, especially if China overreaches. But how does that work? Do we expect an inalienable right to a US response if things get difficult, but in the meantime, put in less and talk the alliance down?” he said.
He said Australia’s contribution to the alliance with the US had always been more pragmatic and hard-headed than many commentators appreciated, even its involvement in the Iraq war.
Australia should not reassess the alliance based on the “emotional reaction to one person”, he said, referring to Mr Trump.
Although Australia’s relationship with China was “beyond the imagining of 50 years ago”, it remained complex, he said.
It was “no secret that China is very active in intelligence activities directed against us” but this was “no reason to engage in knee-jerk, anti-China decision-making”.
“It is simply the world in which we live,” he said.
On Indonesia, Mr Richardson said extremism in the world’s largest Muslim nation had historically been on the fringes of society, but in the wake of the jailing of governor Ahok for blasphemy, it was “an issue that we will have to continue to watch pretty carefully”.
“The question is this: Is what we have seen in Indonesia over the last 12 months … the first step of extremism into mainstream Indonesian politics or not? I don’t know the answer to that. I think it is too early to give an answer, but I think that is the sharp end of what we should be watching.”
Asked about Russian interference in the US election that delivered Mr Trump and suspected Russian hacking of the French election in favour of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, Mr Richardson said: “It simply underlines the fact that if we do move to electronic voting, we do need to invest enormously up-front in ensuring that we get it right the first time around. In the meantime, good old paper has a certain amount of reassurance.”