Address to Jakarta Business Luncheon, Jakarta
Posted on Monday, 15 October 2012
The occasion for this visit to Indonesia has been the tenth anniversary of the first Bali bombings but its genesis was a meeting with President Yudhoyono in Darwin in July when he said that he looked forward to welcoming me to his country.
I thank President Yudhoyono for his courtesy towards me and for his consistent courtesy towards Australians, most recently demonstrated by the gracious speech Foreign Minister Natalegawa gave on Indonesia’s behalf last Friday and by the thousands of security personnel deployed to ensure that the commemoration went well.
In the wake of the subsequent 2005 Bali bombings, I became personally familiar with just how seriously the President takes Australia when I witnessed his visit to the Australian casualties. This followed the visit of former president Megawati as well as the governor of Bali. As one of the badly hurt Australians waiting to be evacuated observed to me, she’d never been visited by so many politicians in her life.
Notwithstanding frequent differences in culture and personal wealth, Australians and Indonesians have always got on. This explains the flow of millions of Australians to Bali and to other parts of this fascinating archipelago, interrupted but momentarily by the bombings.
Yes, the bombers deliberately targeted Australians and other Westerners; and, yes, they claimed to act in the name of a twisted version of Islam but they were no more representative of Indonesia than the Port Arthur killer was representative of Australia or the Oklahoma bomber was representative of America.
Australians have shown that we understand that by travelling here in ever increasing numbers despite official warnings not to. Tragedy has not driven us apart. It’s brought us closer together.
For Australians, today’s challenge is to see Indonesia as a place to do business as well as to have a holiday; and to view Indonesians as people to work with as well as to have fun with.
For the Australian government, the challenge is to appreciate Indonesia more as an economic partner than as a source of people smuggling; and as an emerging Asian giant rather than as a poor cousin of the economic powerhouses further north.
Along with India, Indonesia is the emerging democratic power of Asia. Over the past decade, it has consistently grown at about six per cent a year. More than 50 million Indonesians live a middle class lifestyle. In purchasing power terms, its GDP probably already exceeds Australia’s.
To give just one revealing example, over the past decade, while Australia’s share of world thermal coal exports has slipped from 20 to 18 per cent, Indonesia’s has increased from 13 to 33 per cent.
Australia has a number of vital international relationships but in at least some respects, Indonesia’s size, proximity and potential make it our most important one. It’s not currently our most important trade, security or historical relationship but there’s probably no relationship with more potential impact on Australia or with more potential upside given the way we have sometimes underestimated our giant and growing neighbour.
It goes without saying that Australia shouldn’t neglect the opportunities of trade with China and Japan or the continuing United States security role in our region but we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that more distant prospects are always the most glittering.
Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest population. It is the world’s third largest democracy. Many of its people remain poor but it is certainly not a poor country, as its recent advances abundantly demonstrate. A century hence, it is hard to imagine that any of the countries we currently pay so much attention to will have more impact on us than Indonesia.
The challenge is to see things more from Indonesia’s perspective and less from our own. When I say that Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus, I don’t mean that we should stop lecturing countries in Europe and the Middle East only to start lecturing countries in our region.
Rather, I mean that effective international relationships require far more engagement and attention-to-detail than the current government has sometimes given them. I mean focussing on the relationships and the issues that really matter to us rather than the ones that happen to be in the news.
It’s much more an accident of geography than Indonesia’s fault that the vast majority of the 27,000 illegal boat arrivals to Australia have come via this country. The problem has only arisen because in 2008 the Australian government restored the people smugglers’ business model.
To us, people smuggling has become a first order economic and security issue. Over the past four years, border protection blowouts have cost almost $5 billion. The increased humanitarian intake that the government has announced to help cope with people smuggling will cost an extra $1.3 billion.
As things stand, Australia has partially sub-contracted its immigration programme to people smugglers. That’s why stopping the boats is so important and why the next Coalition government won’t rest until our borders are secure once more.
To Indonesia, though, managing daunting developmental challenges across a vast archipelago, people smuggling is not such a priority. It’s not that Indonesia is indifferent to it or unwilling to be helpful, as its commitment to the Bali process shows. It’s just that there are often far more pressing issues.
The obvious conclusion is that if Australia wants Indonesian cooperation in dealing with our first order issues, we need to cooperate even more closely with Indonesia on its first order issues.
So – as well as congratulating Indonesia for its achievements over the past decade and a half: for its transition to democracy, for its economic development, for its improved governance, and for its stronger sense of nationhood – my purpose today is to affirm the principles that will underpin the next Coalition government’s conduct of this vital relationship.
A period of tension over East Timor sometimes obscures former Prime Minister Howard’s achievement in giving the friendship such a strong foundation. His first big overseas visit was to Jakarta. Australia provided a major line of credit to Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis and $1 billion in aid after the East Asian Tsunami, as well as effective police support in dealing with terrorism and with people smugglers.
More and more, help now goes both ways. Australians were moved when President Yudhoyono wrote, in response to the 2009 Victorian bushfires, that Australia’s misery was Indonesia’s misery too. We deeply appreciated Indonesia’s cash donation and its engineering assistance after last year’s Queensland floods.
The next Coalition government will build on the achievements of the last one, in which I was a senior minister. As health minister, I developed a close and cooperative relationship with Indonesia to deal with potential pandemic disease, including joint investments in better laboratory and quarantine infrastructure.
Should the Coalition win the next election, my first visit as prime minister would be to Jakarta. My hope is that it would become the settled convention that an incoming Australian prime minister’s first overseas visit should be to Indonesia.
An incoming Coalition government would fully respect Indonesia’s territorial integrity in accordance with the Lombok Treaty that John Howard negotiated.
As far as humanly possible, a Coalition government would try to deal with its Indonesian counterpart as a candid friend and never make decisions that impact on Indonesia without discussing them first.
In short, there will be a 'no surprises' policy. It should be deeply out-of-character for an Australian government to decide to set up a processing centre in East Timor, for instance, and to inform Indonesia only as an afterthought once it had already been announced; or to cancel the live cattle trade in panic at a TV programme; or to spin negotiations on sensitive issues as “wins for Australia”.
A stronger and more constructive relationship, in other words, starts with less consciousness of how things might look in tomorrow’s Australian headlines and more respect for how things might seem in Indonesia.
A stronger and more constructive relationship can’t oscillate between obliviousness and self-congratulation. As the Lowy Institute has warned, we need to be alert to the dangers of the Australia-Indonesia relationship stagnating.
The fact that Australia currently exports more to New Zealand with a population of 4 million than it does to Indonesia with a population of 245 million underscores this point.
The Coalition strongly supports the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations that the current government announced in late 2010. The Coalition would enthusiastically continue annual ministerial meetings, ensure that all relevant Australian ministers took part, and thinks that Darwin, because of its special connections with Indonesia, should mostly be the Australian host city.
It was noteworthy that, at my most recent meeting with Minister Natalegawa, three of the Indonesian participants had been educated in Australia but that none of the Australian participants had ever lived in Indonesia. In the years to come, I hope that Australians will far more commonly be in Indonesia, not just as tourists, but as students and on business.
Under the next Liberal and National government, there will be a new, two-way street version of the Colombo Plan that doesn’t just bring our region’s best and brightest to Australia but that takes Australia’s best and brightest to our region.
Under the next Coalition government, 40 per cent of high school students would study a foreign language within a decade. It would be a sign that we take other people’s cultures and insights as seriously as they take ours.
There will always be some tensions in the relationship between two diverse neighbours. Still, as the experience of the last decade abundantly demonstrates, as peoples we like each other and as nations we need each other.
So far, the world hasn’t really become conscious of the scale of Indonesia’s achievements, perhaps because they don’t threaten anyone. Australia’s opportunity is to be among the first to recognise that this easy-going-yet-entrepreneurial and Muslim-yet-pluralist society is now so much more than a tourist destination or a source of cheap labour and raw materials.
The time will come soon enough when Indonesia is far more significant to Australia than the other way round. Our country needs to earn Indonesia’s respect and affection now if we are to have it when we need it. I commit myself and the next Coalition government to this task.