5 February 2020
On Saturday, Indonesian president Joko Widodo is due to arrive in Australia for a visit that will include a speech to the joint houses of parliament. This will be the first such address since March 2010, when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged Australians to see Indonesia as “more than a beach playground with coconut trees”.
In the decade since Yudhoyono’s appeal, Bali tourism has grown stronger – but relations between Australia and its northern neighbour remain strained. Trade is appallingly low, and missteps and offences – boat tow-backs, the Bali Nine executions, the live export ban – occur with predictable regularity.
While Widodo’s visit will be a welcome development, the future of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia depends less on improving high-level ties, which are healthy, than on promoting broader public engagement on both sides. This is the challenge that Scott Morrison should now finally try to address.
According to The Australian Financial Review, Widodo will spend three days in Australia, accompanied by representatives of about forty Indonesian companies and organisations. His visit will be marked by much fanfare about the completion of the Australia–Indonesia free trade deal, which Indonesia’s parliament is soon expected to ratify. But the long-awaited pact will not fix one of the main impediments to increased trade: a lack of interest in Indonesia among Australians, business leaders included.
Recent Australian prime ministers have preferred to develop personal ties with their Indonesian counterparts, or pursue headline-grabbing deals, rather than address this gulf of understanding. But there have been exceptions. In 1994, the Keating government launched a three-week event in Indonesia to promote ties between the two countries, involving 500 Australian organisations and 1500 people from the fields of business, science, culture, and sport. It was the largest event of this sort that Australia had ever held overseas. Participants included the West Australian Ballet, BHP, the South Australian soccer federation, and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Paul Keating attended the event, as did seven ministers. At its launch in Sydney, Keating famously declared: “No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.”
Back then, two-thirds of Indonesians believed that the White Australia policy was still in place. Today, according to the Lowy Institute, just 34 per cent of Australians believe that “Indonesia is a democracy”. In both countries, the public’s paranoia and ignorance persist. Addressing this is crucial to developing closer ties.
When Morrison next visits Indonesia, he should not travel alone. Other prime ministers have led large delegations abroad. In 2014, Tony Abbott brought a huge delegation of business leaders to China in an effort to seal a free trade deal. But Indonesia should be the primary focus of such ventures. The government needs to do all it can to address the lack of confidence and understanding that makes Australian businesses and other organisations resistant to seeking opportunities in a country that is so large and so close.
In recent years, there has been some progress in developing engagement beyond political and military ties. Former foreign minister Julie Bishop spearheaded the New Colombo Plan, a scholarship scheme to allow Australian students to study throughout Asia. By the end of 2018, more than 5000 students had chosen to study in Indonesia. And before the last election, Labor’s Chris Bowen, who has been learning Bahasa Indonesia, proposed an exchange scheme to allow 1000 Australians and 1000 Indonesians to intern in Indonesia and Australia, respectively, for up to six months. Such projects will be crucial to ensuring that future business and government leaders have connections to Indonesia.
These are some of the steps Canberra can take to improve the relationship between the two countries. There are few votes in it. But the potential prize, in the end, is huge. According to the most recent World Bank data, Australia is the thirteenth-largest economy in the world and Indonesia is the sixteenth. According to Treasury estimates, Indonesia will have the seventh-largest economy by 2030 and Australia’s ranking will slip to seventeenth place. Last week, California-based Taco Bell announced plans to open in Jakarta. Trade between Australia and Indonesia can move beyond wheat and live cattle.