Talking it Out: Indonesia and Australia Discuss People Problems
Rachelle Cole & Arjuna Dibley
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Darwin this week for the Indonesia-Australia Leaders Meeting. This annual event is an important mechanism for strengthening the partnership, and it is representative of the high value that the two countries, at least rhetorically, place on a robust relationship.
Given the recent asylum-seeker tragedies of the last few weeks and how desperate the Australian government is to find a solution to this issue, discussions about people-smuggling were expected to dominate the meeting.
While it is important that Australia works with Indonesia to develop a regionally based policy/solution that is effective, and morally and politically acceptable, there are other issues the leaders need to look at. These involve the relationship between the two countries, one that can be improved upon as easily as reaching for low-hanging fruit. That is to say, both governments could easily improve the situation by making some minor policy changes.
Australia’s current and former governments have allowed the country’s Indonesian expertise and language skills to decline, with enrollment in Indonesian language courses at an all-time low. This at a time when Indonesia’s economy is growing rapidly and has already passed Australia’s in terms of purchasing power.
While the US government is plowing money into soft-diplomacy initiatives in Indonesia (a country that is about 15,000 kilometers from its borders), the Australian government is downsizing, even though Australia is within a thousand kilometers of Indonesia. Australia has no cultural centers in Indonesia, while the United States has one (in one of the plushest malls in Jakarta), not to mention the German, Dutch, Italian, French and Japanese cultural centers in the capital.
Australia has also reduced the size of a once-flourishing Australian Education Center, which, with offices in Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan, provided information about educational opportunities in Australia. This comes at a time when Australian international student numbers are suffering, and Indonesians are looking for an expansion of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. The recently published Lowy Institute Indonesia Poll 2012 revealed that “Indonesians want a much broader government agenda,” with a large percentage of respondents calling for greater focus on other sectors, including education (95 percent) and trade (87 percent).
The Indonesian government has yet to deliver on many of the promises it has made to Australia in recent years. Under the 2005 Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development, Yudhoyono offered to provide 50 scholarships to Australians to study in Indonesia. Unfortunately, this never materialized.
In 2009, Australia and Indonesia signed a reciprocal visa arrangement allowing young people with tertiary degrees to work and holiday in each other’s countries. While the maximum number of Indonesians, 100, use the visa to discover Australia each year, young Australians trying to obtain their visas face insurmountable barriers, including uncooperative Indonesian consular and embassy staff, and an immigration office that provides inconsistent and inaccurate information.
A recent survey by the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association questioned people who had completed immersion programs in Indonesia. It revealed that there were only two successful applicants. This visa issue and other stringent restrictions on foreign labor make it hard for Australians to spend time working or studying in Indonesia and learning the language and culture of their closest neighbor.
Person-to-person ties are a second-tier priority for the Australian and Indonesian governments, who place greater emphasis on security threats and development assistance. Yet, the policies of both governments play a major role in encouraging or discouraging our relationship.
Both governments need to address some of these “low-hanging” policy issues to create a future relationship that is not just a reaction to the latest drug-related criminal case. This relationship should be insulated against high-profile events because it is based on mutual respect and understanding. Forming a relationship of this level should be the focus of this and future Indonesia-Australia Leaders Meeting s.
Rachelle Cole and Arjuna Dibley are co-founders of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association.