Now here’s the weirdest thing about the way we handle policy with the neighbours:
Canberra politicians are proven fumblers and bumblers when dealing with big Muslim-majority Indonesia. Yet at the Australian National University just a ten-minute bike ride across the lake are some of the world’s foremost experts, able to inform, advise and caution.
Instead we have policy on the run when Scott Morrison edged the idea that our embassy in Israel might shift 70 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean. Unsurpisingly he was caught in the slips.
The PM’s office has instant access not only to government think-tanks, but also leading academics. They speak slang garnered in kampongs while doing doctorates. They’ve savoured durians, recited dawn prayers, sweated through nights of wayang magic. In brief they can feel the nation’s pulse.
Last century Cornell in the US, and Leiden in the Netherlands, were the specialists on the archipelago to our north. Now Melbourne University, Monash, the ANU and to a lesser extent Murdoch in Perth and Flinders in Adelaide have taken over.
Does no-one in Parliament House have scholars on speed dial? ‘A quickie, mate … whaddya reckon? The boss might give Ambassador Chris Cannan a new pad in Jerusalem. Good idea – or what?’
Had the calls been made the profs would have been of one voice: ‘Are you joking? Indonesians will go spare … they back Palestine all the way. You’ll blow the whole Free Trade Agreement.’
And so it has come to pass. A few weeks ago the PM was so upbeat in Jakarta about endorsing the FTA, known as the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, that he predicted it would be wrapped before Christmas.
Not the best analogy for a nation where giving presents to celebrate the birth of Christ concerns less than ten per cent of the population.
This deal has had more completion dates than reports of the Second Coming. Negotiations started in 2010 but collapsed when Australian spies were unmasked tapping the phones of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Name cards were restored on conference tables in 2015 when the enthusiastic Harvard-educated business banker Thomas Lembong became Trade Minister. He lasted less than a year. His replacement Enggartiasto Lukita, a politician for almost four decades, has been more wary.
Now on the eve of the over-inflated almost final, final signing this week in either Singapore during the East Asia Summit, or Port Moresby for the APEC talks, the hot-air balloon has been pricked. There’s much hissing, particularly from Australian business..
The PM has reportedly told the Australian Financial Review and other media: ‘The negotiations have gone well but I’m not in a hurry. This process will take quite a period to bring to realisation, including ratification.
‘We’re not on a burning timetable here, we’re patient but we’ve never conflated these issues.’
As Malcolm Turnbull anticipated, Indonesia has conflated the possible Israel Embassy move with the FTA. That was predictable and avoidable. And the timetable was certainly afire.
Some media reported that an August signing in Jakarta meant all was cooked and served, an impression the PM didn’t dampen. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s more measured language announced ‘the substantive conclusion of negotiations.’
The less animated Indonesian media correctly called the one-page document a ‘MOU’.
The FTA has always been driven by Australia which has most to gain. According to DFAT last year’s total two-way trade was worth $16.4 billion and opportunites to expand are vast.
Wheat and beef have been the biggies, but negotiators were moving beyond grain freighters and cattle-carriers to selling services, particularly education where the needs are great.
This year Australia’s Lowy Institute published a lengthy report claiming: ‘Indonesia’s education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for an internationally competitive system.’
Not only schools but also universities where 16 make Asia’s top 400 campuses on the international Quacquarelli Symonds list. Adjacent Malaysia, population twelve per cent of Indonesia’s 260 million, has 27.
There are around 3,000 tertiary institutes in Indonesia; 122 are state-run. Most are teaching, not research. Smart and wealthy students head for labs and lecture rooms overseas – UNESCO cites around 42,000, with half going to Australia..
But the real crisis is in vocational education. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo – along with the nation’s more thoughtful politicians and academics – fears the economy will slump without enough trained youngsters to match modern demands.
So he’s been signalling south for help. The chances here are more worthy than amassing wealth. Handled properly Australian educators could make a positive and lasting impact by lifting teaching techniques and broadening minds.
However this will be no stroll through the paddy. The hazards are huge and include rising nationalism, resentment of foreigners and their ‘liberal’ ideas, and hostility from local academics who’ll be exposed as sub-par. Private institutions owned by politicians will fear competition and oppose.
Progress will require clear-eyed deal-makers and flexible public servants conscious of the complexities. To perform professionally they’ll need to consult those who understand Indonesia.