BY: ROSS B TAYLOR
Penny Williams has been appointed as Australia’s new ambassador to Indonesia, replacing Gary Quinlan, whose term concluded this month. Ambassador Williams has had a distinguished career, including as Australia’s high commissioner to Malaysia from 2007-2010, and later as deputy secretary to DFAT. She also speaks Bahasa Indonesia and an intimate knowledge of Indonesian culture, so key stakeholders can be confident that the new ambassador will manage this important posting with great professionalism, passion and hopefully a desire to really make a difference.
So what can the incoming ambassador do to enhance the already strong relationship between our two countries?
To answer this question it is interesting to read the interview recently with the outgoing ambassador Gary Quinlan who, despite Covid-19, served Australia’s interests well with his usual warm but professional manner. Gary was also well liked within Indonesia.
The interview, as a feature article in the Australian Financial Review (‘Why we’re so tight with Indonesia’ – 21/4) quotes Gary Quinlan as saying, “There is certainly no country in south-east Asia more important to us than Indonesia”. Most diplomats would, of course say that, but in many respects Mr Quinlan is right with both countries enjoying warm relations and strong links in defence, anti-terrorism, policing, security, education, health and amongst business and the many NGO’s with long-standing relations with our northern neighbour.
What the former ambassador failed to highlight – as do most of his colleagues – is this ‘warm’ relationship is actually very shallow. The Lowy Poll 2020 points out that 64% of Australians – including business people – hold some degree of mistrust towards Indonesia. Hardly a good way to start a successful IA-CEPA trade agreement.
So there is more work to be done on both sides, and therefore it is worth asking what could the new ambassador seek to achieve during her time, in order to reverse this adverse perception of Indonesians by so many Australians? Obviously Covid-19 will be a key to any initiatives being followed through, however people-to-people relations is one important means to really develop the close links to which our officials aspire, and this can be done in a number of ways:
- By reforming the outdated and expensive visa application process for Indonesian tourists to come here and get to know us. A $560.00 non-refundable fee just to apply for a family of four is an ‘own goal’ for Australia when over 70 other countries now offer Indonesian citizens visa-free entry. But we actually do more to deter Indonesians from coming here, such as requiring each family member to complete a 15-page application form that includes asking a 14 year-old girl, for example, has she been involved in acts of genocide. This is not what we would call ‘putting-out the welcoming mat’ at a time when, post-Covid, we will need all the international tourists we can get.
- We can do more, by extending Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program to include Indonesian agricultural workers, in addition to workers from Timor-Leste and the Pacific Islands.
- We need to make it easier and more affordable for young Indonesians to holiday and work here under the ‘backpacker’ visa arrangement. We have already extended the annual quota from 100 to 1,000 applications with a view to increasing this to 5,000 in the future. But the process is expensive and complicated with many young people failing to obtain a visa to holiday and work in Australia whilst getting to know their fellow young Aussies.
- Australia could provide incentives for Indonesian teachers to work here teaching Indonesian to our students at a time where Indonesian language programs have fallen by 63% since 1992 and disturbingly close to levels only seen during the 70’s as Australia emerged from its ‘White Australia’ policy.
- Qualified nurses from Indonesia could be offered opportunities to undertake work in our aged-care sector where Australia is ‘crying-out’ for qualified staff who also possess a culture where respect for the elderly is very important.
These are but a few suggestions, and to be fair Indonesia also needs to ‘step-up’ and encourage more young Australians to holiday and work in Indonesia. ACICIS, through the New Colombo Plan, has broken-down barriers wonderfully in providing the opportunity for young Australians to study in Indonesia, but they also need to be offered internships and for the process to obtaining a student visa needs to be simpler.
Our officials and political leaders are constantly reminding us of just how warm our relationship is with Indonesia, but all too often we do not demonstrate these words with actions. Here is the chance for our incoming ambassador to not only carry-on the good work of Gary Quinlan, but also to use her strong connections into DFAT and government to push through reforms that will finally demonstrate that we do mean it when we say how important Indonesia is to Australia.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute and a former national vice president of the Australia Indonesia Business Council, and a former WA government commissioner to Indonesia.