So much potential, so much let go

Sep 3, 2020

PM Scott Morrison wants the right to cancel agreements (there are reported to be 130) between foreign governments and authorities outside Canberra if deemed ‘contrary to Australia’s national interests’.The prime target is said to be Victoria jogging down China’s One Belt, One Road, but beware elbowing state initiatives aside.

In August 30 BC (Before Coronavirus), Western Australia and East Java signed a Sister-State Agreement promoting mutual friendship, education, sport, trade and whatever else smart and open minds might imagine.

At the time the idea was considered commendable. Although the Constitution says only Canberra can sign binding international treaties on Australia’s behalf, other tiers of government can contract with foreign governments and their entities, according to Monash Uni’s Professor Luke Beck.

The Sister-State idea was formalised during the Labor Premiership of Carmen Lawrence, and backed by education minister Geoff Gallop (later Premier) and National Party leader Hendy Cowan. Despite their political differences both understood Perth was closer to Surabaya (the capital of East Java) than Canberra, so proximity could be used constructively.

This despite former PM John Howard reportedly saying it would be hard to find two nations (Indonesia and Australia) so geographically close yet more culturally distant. Stranger rhymes with danger, but it’s not a synonym.

The WA-EJ show initially thrived, building understanding, opening joint ventures. It bristled with opportunities to foster mateship.

Lasting successes include the sale of seed potatoes tripling crop yields, and in-calf Friesian heifers to boost bloodlines. Indonesian farmers saw modern dairy systems and became milk missionaries promoting hygiene and nutrition.

In 1994 a contract was signed with Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture to train Indonesian students and teachers, funded by the Asian Development Bank.

The first overseas health study tour brought senior admin and medicos from 29 Indonesian hospitals. They got to see inside WA’s facilities and talk to their counterparts.

Encouraged by publicity about the visitors there was a rush to learn the Indonesian language and culture, and take tours west of Bali. In the 1970s it became fashionable to discover more about Japan as the East Asian nation’s economy thrived. In the 1990s it was Indonesia’s turn to be in vogue.

A scheme to improve testing and treatment at a centre for the deaf in Surabaya was an outstanding success, attracting support from NGOs and philanthropists. Likewise visits by experts in the education of autistic children. There were other initiatives, including arts partnerships.

Tragically the founders’ enthusiasm and goodwill was never matched by their parochial successors who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see beyond Rottnest Island. The tank was run dry, the agreement towed into a political dry dock where it’s occasionally picked over for spare parts.

So what went wrong? The WA Government’s leadership began to weaken in 1998 when the economic crisis felled President Soeharto and the rupiah. There were riots, mainly in Jakarta. Radicals returned from exile and the East Timorese voted four-to-one in an Australian-supported referendum to leave Indonesia, infuriating nationalists.

In 1999 a rent-a-mob smashed the WA Government’s ground floor showroom office in Surabaya. WA rep David Edwards and his Indonesian colleagues were alerted by the US Consulate. They grabbed computers and files and fled to an hotel.

Then came the bombs in Bali and Jakarta.

These were bad times. They passed slowly, nurtured by NGO healers: Ross Taylor (a former WA Government regional director in Jakarta) with the lobby group Indonesia Institute, teacher Karen Bailey through the cultural centre Balai Bahasa, and many others. They’re still hammering department doors in Perth.

For the viruses of fear and distrust have infected the State government. The siblings make occasional contact but their families are growing apart.

On one occasion a WA bureaucrat had to file a risk assessment to Perth and wait in the Surabaya hotel lobby outside an Indonesia-Australia Business Council meeting before being allowed to join the patient locals.

In 2003 the East Java office was shifted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta where it was reportedly treated as an unwelcome nuisance (a minor State agency, not a superior Federal outfit), then to a secret location, losing its shop-front accessibility.

Edwards’ successors, particularly the congenial Martin Newbery, did their damndest to revive the agreement and build lasting relationships. But the paranoid Perth-based executives never understood the critical importance in Indonesian culture of maintaining personal ties.

According to researcher Hugo Seymour at the Perth USAsia Centre, ‘past WA government successes demonstrate that building long term economic partnerships cannot be executed transactionally, but require lasting investment and engagement.

‘This is particularly so in developing country markets, where business conditions can be challenging and returns on private investment take time to realise.’

That truth has never sailed up the Swan River. The WA office is now a trade outpost and its original broader cargo jettisoned long ago. A consulate has been opened in Surabaya, but that’s a Federal show.

Surabaya’s suburbs are exemplars of Indonesia’s growing prosperity – the wealth that Aussie cockies want to access through the just validated Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

Ten years ago it was rare to find a bakery, and the loaves were of questionable provenance. Now bread shops are commonplace offering great choice straight from on-site ovens. Most use Australian grain, usually from the WA wheatbelt.

Asked if they know the origin of their ingredients the bakers look bemused. That’s not their fault – we’re making little effort to promote our interest in their lives. We just want their dough.

Thirty years ago the Sister-State agreement was so widely promoted many East Javans knew they had suppliers and friends next door. No longer.

PM Morrison shouldn’t worry about the WA agreement being ‘contrary to Australia’s national interests’, however these are defined. Better consider backing deals which bring us closer to our neighbours, learning from the WA experience which tried to do just that.

Disclosure: In the early 1990s the author used two Sister-State research grants to write about the relationship.

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