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March 2010

Last week’s visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a good opportunity for me to view the strengths and weaknesses of the Australia-Indonesian relationship up close. Predictably, the lead-up in the newspapers (especially The Australian) was all about terrorism and people smuggling. Despite SBY giving a lengthy address to the Australian Parliament suggesting that Australians have too narrow an understanding of Indonesia, and explicitly pointing out that Australian perceptions are over ten years out-of-date, those same themes seemed to preoccupy the Rudd Government. In the latter case, I think it’s because Prime Minister Rudd himself has not moved beyond the identification between Indonesia and Islamic terrorism that dominated his time as Shadow Foreign Minister. The many references to the Travel Warnings in SBY’s and his ministers’ speeches show that Indonesia has long ago lost patience with the Australian Government on this issue. Nevertheless, the more positive signals from Australia—having the President address the joint Houses, and presenting him with an Order of Australia—went down well.

On the Indonesian side, the signals of positive intent were strong, but based on a cultural misperception. In Indonesia a large entourage is an demonstration of prestige and status, so the President brought thirteen ministers, six governors, assorted parliamentary delegates, and numerous other advisors and minders. Although probably not all of them were used, I’m told that over 200 visas were issued for the visit. However the size of the visit, including last-minute notice of who was coming, created a logistical nightmare, and did not really allow the Australian side to prepare properly, so much of the delegation was surplus to requirements. The Sydney Morning Herald featured a front-page story saying that the Governor of New South Wales was ten minutes late for her meeting with SBY, but didn’t report that this was because there was only one lift available for the massive Indonesian delegation.

While the Australian Government could send more positive signals by dropping the level of travel warning to the same level as India, the Indonesian side still has work to do as well. Rumour has it that the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement, initiated by the Howard Government, is being held up by the ever-disfunctional Indonesian parliament. Likewise Indonesian leaders are constantly telling us how they want more Australians to study Indonesia, but do nothing to fix the arduous visa and research permit processes. These processes are Suharto-era remnants involving multiple government departments, and thus provide minor officials with endless opportunities for bribe-collecting.