AUST-RI RELATIONS LACK LEADERSHIP
© Duncan Graham 2005
The Australian government has failed to provide serious leadership in improving relations with Indonesia, according to Dr David Hill, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Western Australia’s Murdoch University.
“It is disappointing that many key recommendations made by a Federal Parliamentary committee - and central to Australia’s future capacity to engage with Indonesia in a mutually beneficial and productive way - have not been taken up with sufficient vigour or commitment,” he said.
Professor Hill was commenting to The Jakarta Post on the Australian government’s response to a major report on Australian-Indonesian relationships.
The report was written by the Foreign Affairs sub-committee of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
The 275-page report with 28 recommendations was published in May last year, but the government’s response has only just been released.
The report, titled Near Neighbours – Good Neighbours, took 21 months to produce. Work started following the first Bali bomb.
The 25-member sub-committee met in Australia and Jakarta. It included members of parliament from all major Australian political parties. The current Opposition Leader Kim Beazley was a member.
Evidence was given by 60 organisations and 124 submissions were made. Almost 40 per cent concerned education.
In the report sub-committee chairman David Jull described the Indonesian-Australian relationship as “complex”.
“Being good neighbours is an art requiring a delicate balancing of distance and closeness,” he said. “A distance that is respectful of difference and sovereignty – a closeness that guarantees a helping hand in time of need.’
Although the report drew a lukewarm response in Australia, most academics involved in Asian Studies welcomed recommendations that urged the government to spend more on education to boost understanding of Indonesia and Indonesian.
In its reply to the report, the government said funding for education and training assistance to Indonesia had increased. Scholarships were available and a new program had been introduced to lift English language training in Islamic boarding schools, mainly in East Java.
However Professor Hill slammed the government’s negative response to a recommendation to restore the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools program.
This started in 1995 and was designed to make Australians more Asia-literate. Teachers claimed the program helped revive interest in Indonesian, but the Federal government withdrew support in 2002. Enrolments in higher level learning of Indonesian then slumped.
“While the uptake of Indonesian language languishes around Australia the government’s response is simply to declare that it is doing what it can – which is clearly not enough,” Professor Hill said.
“Indonesian needs to be regarded as a strategic priority and to be supported financially at all levels of education from primary to tertiary.
“Yet the level of funding is less than AUD 1.50 (Rp 11,000) a year per head of population which is a paltry investment in a country’s linguistic competence. It’s less than the cost of one cup of coffee.
“Instead of providing serious leadership, the government has chosen to deflect responsibility back to the various states.”
Responding to another recommendation that the government lift its aid to Indonesia, the government said that before last December’s tsunami Australia had already increased its annual aid budget to AUD 160.8 million (Rp 120,750 million).
After the Indian Ocean disaster and a commitment of AUD 1 billion (Rp 7,500 billion) over five years, Australia was now the third ranked bilateral donor to Indonesia behind Japan and Germany.
Another recommendation for action to promote understanding of Islam in Australia drew this response: “The government is currently looking at ways to address the perceptions in some areas of the community that Australia is not racially or religiously tolerant”.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 October 2005)