How not to win friends and influence people

Mar 26, 2021

“No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.” Paul Keating – 1994

Few have disagreed with then PM Paul Keating’s March 1994 speech, endorsed mildly by his successors and embellished by exporters. Though there’s been a wealth of words and a dearth of action, who’d dare doubt this article of faith?

Mark McGowan for one. The newly re-elected WA Premier has shredded the Asian Engagement ministry he created in 2017. He’s also dumped the State’s dedicated trade commissioner in Indonesia, a tough market to penetrate for even hardened operators at ease with the language and culture.

Connoisseurs of pointless memorabilia should grab a copy of the government’s WA’s Asian Engagement Strategy 2019-2030, Our Future with Asia – before the printout is quietly pulped.

Despite Indonesia mishandling the pandemic [1.5 million cases, 40 thousand deaths] market watchers still reckon the planet’s fourth most populous nation is set to become the fourth biggest economy by 2050. As Perth is just a coffee-and-kip flight to the archipelago, let’s go. The Balinese love us thirsty laid-back Ozzies – Jakarta can’t be that much different.

There’s been some screeching about betrayal because WA was once seriously keen on building lasting ties with East Java, particularly when Labor’s Dr Geoff Gallop was premier [1996-2001]. The problem’s been Perth-based decision makers’ expecting rapid returns for little outlay. Relating to Asia is a long game; like wine it needs to age.

There’s also disillusionment and envy. What are these trade wallahs up to when out of town? In their exotic postings they’re supposed to sell the State and nurture neophytes carrying embossed ballpoints, diarrhoea pills and delicious pie-charts.

They care for VIPs on overseas ‘fact-finding missions’ which in one case involved checking Japanese bath-houses.

Craig Peacock was WA’s man in Tokyo garnering praise for his competence and ability to hustle. He was certainly a great wool-puller, blurring his bosses’ eyesight. For 17 years he had a grand time till the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission picked apart his reports and receipts, allegedly finding a $540,000 fleecing plus some funny business involving politician mates desiring $700 massages.

Naturally there was an inquiry which spread beyond malfeasance into structure causing a furious McGowan to upend the barrel because one apple had codling moth. The Premier’s ‘hub and spokes’ response involves four new investment and trade commissioners in seemingly incompatible and certainly unmanageable geographical groupings: ‘India-Gulf, North-East Asia, China and ASEAN.’

Their department is JTSI, which sounds like an office where you’d ask for Winston Smith. The acronym is as weird as the combine – Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation. Rearranged as JIST it becomes Kiwi for a joke.

Unfortunately there’s nothing witty about forcing such disparate disciplines together in an isolated city to see which cracks first. This isn’t another absurd TV series but an apparently serious attempt to win new business.

Overseas officials and businessfolk used to centralised systems find it passing strange that states in a federation would compete to sell their goodies. Why duplicate when there are old Austrade hands in our largest Embassy in the world? These diplomats know the ropes and traps, and they’re backed by a Canberra department with 6,000 employees.

The WA appointee handling the ten heterogeneous nations which make up ASEAN [pop 600-plus million] will be based in Perth, then Singapore and eventually Jakarta if and when the plague subsides. Apart from confusing cities, currencies and timezones, pressures will include edgy minders demanding hourly feedback.

McGowan reckons ‘hubs’ will provide a ‘more flexible model to help diversify WA’s mining-dependent economy’. Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor, a former Jakarta-based WA trade commissioner, has a different translation, ensuring he’ll miss out on breakfast invites at the next launch of an exciting strategy:

“The real issue is not the demise of the portfolio as it was completely ineffective, but rather the incompetent leadership of JTSI, which has left the critically important trade and investment function a mere shadow of its once visionary and professional self. For 20 years state governments have rebranded, restructured, culled, expanded and now diminished our engagement with Asia. International trade and investment is the life-blood of our economy. It deserves better than this.”

Australian traders seeking guides to the 4D labyrinth of Indonesian business negotiations will be better advised to ignore the JTSI jesters and recruit polyglot scions of Indonesian corporate families. There are plenty around. They’ve studied abroad so know how to engage with Australia.

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