Deepening the Australia-Indonesia relationship - Speech, Gold Coast




Selamat pagi. It’s good to be with you today.

When I was anak kecil, I lived in Indonesia for three years. My father Michael was at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, funded by the Australian Government to work on a special training program designed to improve social science research capacity throughout Indonesian Universities and Islamic Institutes. My mother Barbara was mostly looking after my brother and me, but was beginning the research into the Indonesian education system that would become her PhD thesis, and her studies of traditional Acehnese textiles that would become her book Tangan-Tangan Trampil / The Hands of Time.

It was a pretty extraordinary experience for a child to have. I attended the local Acehnese school, where lessons were conducted in Indonesian. We spent most of the day singing nation-building songs (with a burgeoning local independence movement, the Suharto Government was keen to remind people in Aceh that they were Indonesian first and Acehnese second). Then we played in the muddy playground. As my mother recalls it, the sole white kid in the class was the only one whose white shirt had turned brown by the end of the day.

My friend Niko Fahrizal and I would explore the local neighbourhood, playing by the river, watching the bigger kids at the volleyball nets, watching Scooby Doo at Niko’s place. Niko is now an officer in the Indonesian military. When my mother visits for her research, he calls her tante Barbara (auntie).

Our next door neighbour, Australian expatriate Lance Castles, had a monkey. One day, I was playing with it when it bit me. This wouldn’t have been an issue in Australia, but in 1970s Indonesia, rabies was widespread. My father quickly learned that if the monkey began showing symptoms, we had just 24 hours to get me to a hospital in Singapore and begin the course of injections. Otherwise, I would probably die. The catch was that our visas only lasted 6 months and took 3 months to renew, so the Australian Embassy in Jakarta retained our passports. My dad made a few phone calls, and miraculously, the passports were flown to us the next day. Better yet, the monkey didn’t show any signs of frothing at the mouth. It played happily, and so did we.

The cohort of Australians who engaged with Indonesia in the immediate decades after Independence were an extraordinary group of people. Herb Feith, who created Australian Volunteers Abroad, believed that volunteering was ‘symbolic of human equality’. I still remember his enthusiasm for Indonesia, and the way he would energetically share his ideas with everyone, from President Soekarno to a little child like me. Herb’s subsequent PhD thesis was dedicated to his friend Djaelani, a Jakarta servant who lived in one of the city’s many slums. When I speak to young Australians about to embark on volunteering in Southeast Asia, I encourage them to read Jemma Purdey's biography of Herb Feith before they go.

But those Indonesia experts didn’t just believe in helping our large neighbour, they also worked to change Australia’s policies. Jamie Mackie helped draft Control or Colour Bar?, and organised street protests against the White Australia policy. My father was among those who marched from Melbourne University between tight rows of police officers to campaign for change. In the 1980s, thanks to the repeal of that policy, Chusnul Mariyah came to live with our family for several years, while she wrote her PhD thesis (on the topic of Australian local government corruption, as it happens). My brother Tim and I still call Chusnul our Indonesian ‘big sister’.

The arc that the Indonesian economy has taken over the past two generations is superbly traced out in a new article from the Australian National University’s Hal Hill. He notes that while growth rates have moderated in the post-Suharto era, Indonesia has benefited from sound macroeconomic management, economic openness, inclusive social progress and institutional development. Indonesia still faces significant challenges – my own research with Pierre Van Der Eng on Indonesian inequality illustrates just one of these. But for all the challenges it faces, Professor Hill’s major conclusion is one of development success, broadly defined.

And yet Australia has too often neglected our relationship with what Hal Hill calls ‘Asia’s Third Giant’. Indonesia is a G20 nation that has ten times Australia’s population, enormous diversity and ranks as the largest Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia has worked with Australia in countless international forums to secure a more prosperous and peaceful region. But between our two countries, we still have too little economic activity, and too few interpersonal connections. We need a relationship based on more than Batik, Bali and Bintang.

This week was to have seen the signing of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. Negotiations for this agreement began in 2010, were restarted in 2016, and concluded on 18 August 2018. The signing process was derailed when Prime Minister Morrison suggested that Australia might join Guatemala and the United States as the only two countries in the world that place their Israeli embassies in Jerusalem. That in itself speaks volumes about the present state of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. As Shadow Trade Minister Jason Clare has noted, once the bilateral agreement is signed, it will then go to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which has 20 sitting days – or five sitting weeks – to scrutinise the deal. Given the likely timing of the next election, this will effectively push the process over to the next election.

As you know, there is a limit to what can be achieved through preferential bilateral trade agreements. According to the latest Australian International Business Survey, just 7 percent of businesses identified such agreements as a key reason for choosing their first overseas market. 

Whatever you think about the quality of the Australia-Indonesia agreement, it is clear that our relationship with Asia, and with Indonesia, must be considerably deeper. As Bill Shorten recently told the Lowy Institute, ‘Australian foreign policy will be independent, confident and ambitious’. He pledged that under Labor, foreign policy will speak with a clear Australian accent – in the traditions of Doc Evatt and Gareth Evans.

Central to Labor’s FutureAsia policy is ensuring more Australians speak an Asian language. And yet when I was born in 1972, there were more Australian school students studying Bahasa Indonesia than there are today. 

In the decade to 2015, the number of NSW year 12 students studying Mandarin halved. Even then, most were from families who spoke the language at home. Just 153 were studying Chinese as a second language.

In the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, the Gillard Government announced a commitment to ensuring that all Australians had the chance to learn a priority Asian language – Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and Indonesian.

A Shorten Government will build on this commitment, by:

  • Setting ambitious targets and goals for Asian languages through the Council of Australian Governments;
  • Offering up to 100 teaching scholarships annually for native language speakers in Australia and for top-performers in priority Asian languages in year 12;
  • Improving Asian languages curriculum materials from pre-school to year 12;
  • Establishing an Advisory Council on Asia Capabilities, headed up by experts from academia, the education sector, business, and non-profits, to drive research and generate new ideas to boost teaching and learning about Asia across all levels of Australia’s education system; and 
  • Generating nationally comparable data on the uptake of Asian languages in Australia 

I’ve forgotten most of the Indonesian I knew as a child, but at least three of my parliamentary colleagues – Luke Gosling, Stephen Jones and Chris Bowen – speak Bahasa Indonesia. 

Language isn’t just a communication tool – it’s a window into a culture. My three sons don’t speak Indonesian, but when we’re out at an Asian restaurant, and someone says that their food is ‘too hot’, we’ll ask them to clarify whether they mean panas (boiling) or pedas (spicy). Because sometimes English doesn’t have the right adjective.

We know that many of the jobs of the future will come from Australia plugging into the services supply chains of Asia. To do that, corporate Australia needs a deep understanding of our region. Yet Asialink’s recent report - Match Fit: Shaping Asia Capable Leaders - found that at least eight out of ten large Australian firms are inadequately equipped to do business in Asia.

Labor’s FutureAsia policy will address the lack of Asian business and language literacy at the board level in Australia through measures to better mentor potential directors with that experience to ensure that firms can get the Asia capable talent they need to grow and prosper in our region. 

We will also restore funding to important organisations like the Asia Education Foundation so they can continue their good work advocating for better language and literacy capabilities. And we will strengthen linkages with our Asian based Australian diaspora community, that can help Australian businesses connect into networks to gain the knowledge they need to expand and grow.

Labor will establish a new category of geo-economic counsellor across our diplomatic network, and four new diplomatic posts in the Indo-Pacific region, with a new post in Indonesia a top priority.

FutureAsia also includes initiatives that are specific to Indonesia. Earlier this month, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen announced that if elected, Labor will deliver a new independent Indonesia Economic Strategy.

The template for that strategy would be Peter Varghese’s India Economic Strategy report, released last July, as a blueprint. That report isn’t just for government, it’s also directed at business, identifying ten sectors – from sport to agribusiness – where opportunities exist.

Additionally, Chris announced that a Shorten Labor Government will pursue an agreement with the Indonesian Government for young Australian professionals to gain commercial experience in Indonesia. These young professionals would undertake internships for up to six months. The policy mirrors a program that we would seek to establish with the Chinese Government.

The program would allow 1,000 Australian nationals and 1,000 Indonesian nationals to intern in Indonesia and Australia respectively. It would provide them with the kinds of friendships, business connections and deep understanding that can only come from living in another nation.

The FutureAsia initiatives are what you would expect from an alternative government that takes Asia seriously. Under a Shorten Government, you would have a Foreign Minister who speaks Malay, and a Shadow Treasurer who speaks Indonesian. In Matt Thistlethwaite you would have a Mandarin-speaking Assistant Minister for Treasury. And an Assistant Treasurer whose Indonesian may have faded, but whose fond memories of childhood years in Indonesia remain.

The Australia-Indonesia relationship will be vital to a Shorten Labor Government. We look forward to working with the many experts in this room to make that vision a reality.


Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra

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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.