OPINION

A unique opportunity for a fresh and bold start to the Indonesia-Australia relationship

Despite the threat of protests and court action by opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia has once again pulled-off a remarkably successful election process, involving 193 million voters, with almost no violence or threat to the nation's democracy.

The official result will not be announced until the end of this month, but based on what is known as 'The Quick Count' the likelihood is that the incumbent Joko (Jokowi) Widodo will enjoy another five-year term, providing Indonesia with continued stable government.

Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, walks on stage as his supporters cheer during a campaign rally in Jakarta. Picture: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, walks on stage as his supporters cheer during a campaign rally in Jakarta. Picture: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

Over the next few months the president will be absorbed by the inevitable 'horse-trading' as factions and fractured coalition parties manoeuvre to grab a slice of the presidential pie. Indonesia's president can, like his American counterpart, appoint ministers from outside of the parliament, so the spoils can be great for those former politicians and tycoons seeking payback for their support.

Jokowi will also need to give thought to the two main issues confronting him at the start of his next - and final - term in office: religion and the economy.

Having thrown his former deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is known as Ahok, under a bus over blasphemy charges that landed him in jail, Jokowi decided to appoint an ageing Islamic cleric as his vice-presidential running mate. The appointment of the powerful Ma'ruf Amin was a politically pragmatic, yet blatantly political, decision to win over the conservative Muslim vote; and it worked.

Jokowi will now however, have a vice-president with very little interest in, or knowledge of, finance and the economy, and who prefers to focus on social and religious issues including his opposition to gays, same-sex marriage and some ethnic minority groups.

Meanwhile, what will really matter to Indonesia, and what will decide Jokowi's legacy, is the economy. With 95 million people under the age of 35, the challenges facing the president's team will be huge. Young Indonesians are now aspirational, technically connected through social media and want a better education along with secure and better-paid jobs.

Currently the Indonesian economy has 'bumbled' along at around 5 per cent growth; a rate most nations would cheer about, but where in Indonesia it barely ensures there will be enough quality jobs for these young people. And here is where the opportunity lies for Australia.

The current finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati - a former MD of the World Bank - supported by a relatively small team of technocrats, could help steer Indonesia, if allowed, on a pathway to strong growth and much-needed structural change. This would not be easy as Jokowi, by nature, is a protectionist when it comes to trade, and many Indonesians still hold fears and suspicions about foreign interference of any kind. But the recently signed Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement trade deal between Australia and Indonesia does provide a positive and solid framework for Australia to 'ride-on-the back' of Indonesia's likely journey towards joining the ranks of the top five economies in the World by 2040. The deal is yet to be ratified by both parliaments so we should expect further delays and some changes ahead.

Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during an MOU signing of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during an MOU signing of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

This will require a new approach from the current 'we sell; they buy' business relationship we have with China, moving to a 'partnership-based' relationship with Indonesia. Numerous small and medium enterprise's in Australia have already developed this partnership model to build strong businesses where we add-value to our products in Indonesia and re-export to third-party nations throughout the World.

We also need to develop a relationship that addresses the difference in our respective cultures and the distorted perceptions of each other starting with asking why the 2016 Australia-Indonesia Centre survey found over 57 per cent of Australians - including our future business leaders - did not feel any warmth or trust towards Indonesians?

A good starting point is in people-to-people relations, firstly addressing the dreadful decline in the study of Indonesian language in Australia over the past 10 years. Between Indonesia and Malaysia there are over 300 million people in our neighbourhood who speak (almost) the same language, yet we have ignored the importance in learning their language, and in doing so also understanding their culture.

The second action we could take is ask the Indonesian government to join us in removing the red-tape and cost for young people to experience life in our respective countries and also revise the current bureaucratic and expensive Australian tourist visa application process that is confusing, frustrating and pointless, costing Australia millions of dollars every year.

Irrespective of who wins this month's federal election, we must change our business mindset now, while simultaneously increasing people-to-people links. It would send out an early signal to the new Jokowi team that Australia finally does want to get to know and understand our neighbours; that we, as a sophisticated and educated nation, is well placed to support Indonesia on its way to becoming an economically powerful and civil society, while reaping benefits for ourselves along the way.

IA-CEPA provides the platform to do this when combined with the rare opportunity - as a result of elections in both nations occurring within two months of each other - of a fresh and bold start in the broader bi-lateral relationship.

  • Ross B. Taylor AM is the president of the WA-based Indonesia Institute Inc, and a former national vice-president of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council
This story A unique opportunity for a fresh and bold start to the Indonesia-Australia relationship first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments