Opening art shows together: it’s what good neighbours do

Soft diplomacy: Tony Abbott casts his eye over one of the treasures in Bali: Island of the Gods, after he opened the exhibition at the National Gallery. Photo: Alex EllinghausenMourners at asylum seeker’s funeral attack ‘cruel’ policiesThe Pulse Live with Judith Ireland

Relations with our Indonesian neighbours have been a touch awkward of late, ever since the Australian government got busted committing the international espionage equivalent of eavesdropping over the back fence.

Actually, a more adequate metaphor would be ”creeping into the neighbours’ house while its occupants slept and setting up intrusive secret surveillance devices”, but nobody likes a pedant.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not publicly apologise for the Presidential phone-tapping faux pas (or reports thereof), and the Indonesians withdrew their ambassador as an expression of their pique.

Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema has since returned, and on Wednesday the Prime Minister achieved something of a soft diplomatic coup when he stood next to ambassador Kesoema (who joked about his six-month enforced holiday) and opened an exhibition of Balinese treasures at the National Gallery of Australia.

Also present was gallery director Ron Radford, who accompanied Mr Abbott on his recent trade-whispering trip to China, and who is a long-time lover of Asian art and himself a master in the art of cultural diplomacy.

This was the first time Mr Abbott had been to the gallery in his official capacity as Prime Minister. His reputation is more action man than culture buff, but he coped well. At no stage did he try to ride any of the exhibits or inspect their teeth.

In fact, he spoke some pretty words about how art is the ”thoughtful reflection of our human experience”.

”It’s so right that in this place we display and honour the art of our most important neighbour,” he told the crowd of gallery friends and Indonesian dignitaries.

Just across the way, in Canberra’s second-most-famous monument to brutalist architecture, the High Court was in the process of rejecting a legal challenge to the Manus Island detention centre that could have resulted in its closure.

Asylum seekers are another historical source of discomfort between Australia and Indonesia, but the Prime Minister handled questions on the subject artfully.

”I’m very pleased that we are approaching six months without any successful people smuggling ventures to Australia,” he said after the gallery show.

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