Speech - The Importance of Indonesia to Australia

I spoke in the House of Representatives today about Australia's ties with Indonesia - discussing the three years I lived there, and some of the great Australians who helped shape the relationship.




The Importance of Indonesia to Australia, House of Representatives, 21 November 2013

Last night in the House the Leader of the Opposition spoke about the importance of 'team Australia' in our engagement with Indonesia. It is a phrase which the late great Senator Peter Cook used to use often. I wish to speak today about the personal value I place on that relationship.

I have spoken previously in parliament about some of the great Australians who helped to forge the bond with Indonesia in the 1950s. Jamie Mackie, who worked in the state planning bureau in Jakarta, lectured in economic history at Gadjah Mada University and eventually formed a group at the Monash University Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, which earned the title of 'a second Cornell' in recognition of its engagement with Indonesian issues. I have spoken too about Herb Feith, who was instrumental in setting up the Australian volunteering program, having written to the Australian Prime Minister and the Indonesian President—Menzies and Sukarno—when he was aged 22. Herb's work in building the relationship with Indonesia was absolutely vital. As Herb wrote in 1954 of Australian volunteers in Indonesia:

‘… these young people assert by the way they live, that racial equality is real. By having natural and friendly relations with Indonesians on the basis of mutual respect.’

Herb dedicated his PhD thesis on Indonesia to his friend Djaelani, a servant in Jakarta who lived in one of the city's many slums. Herb’s life is well detailed in Jemma Purdey's excellent biography.

Both Herb and Jamie were instrumental not only in assisting Indonesia but in changing Australian policies. Those policies were at times pretty awful. Labor immigration minister Arthur Calwell was shocked when the High Court ruled that he could not deport an Indonesian woman who at the time had six children with her Australian husband. We are very glad that times have changed in this regard.

Dr Boediono recently received an honorary degree from the ANU. When I was speaking with Terry Hull on the weekend, he was recounting the importance of the ANU's engagement with Indonesia on both an academic and a personal level. Dr Boediono in his speech said, 'There in the Indonesia Project I learned more about the working of the Indonesian economy than anywhere else and anytime before.' His time working in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies was vital, and it has led to a 40-year relationship.

My own childhood included three years living in Indonesia, a period which was important for my own personal development. We lived in Jakarta and in Banda Aceh. I fondly remember exploring among the tea plantations and down the river with my Indonesian friend Niko Zainal, who was a great companion in exploring Indonesia. I continued to do a little work on Indonesia as an academic, publishing a paper with Pierre van der Eng titled 'Inequality in Indonesia: what can we learn from top incomes?' Also, both my parents, as Indonesia scholars, have maintained a close engagement. We very much enjoyed having Chusnal Mariyah, now a senior Indonesian academic, living with us while she did her PhD—not, as it turned out, on Indonesian politics but in fact on internal Australian politics, looking at property approvals in the Balmain council, episodes well documented in the Rats in the Ranks documentary.

The development of Indonesia's anti-poverty program has been vital, and Australia has paid played a key role in that. My predecessor, Bob McMullan, often spoke about his pride in the way in which Australian aid had helped to build schools in Indonesia.

I will close with a quote from Tony Reid on Jamie Mackie. He said:

‘Jamie Mackie epitomized the best in the reformist enthusiasm of post-war Australia to open out to its region. For him as for many of that generation, Indonesia pre-eminently represented the Australian ‘other’, the Asia with which Australia had to come to terms. Because he was himself very much an Australian of that era—warm, open, maverick, visionary, irreverent, unpretentious—he understood better than most how exciting and challenging, but painfully difficult, a prospect it was to get that relationship right.’

The same challenge faces us today.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.