Does Australia trust the ‘strangers’ next door?

Australia openly welcomes Indonesian tourists and young Indonesians wanting to live and work there. Well, sort of.

Does Australia trust the ‘strangers’ next door?

Australia’s mixed and confused position on its relationship with China, where it needs its business but is not sure if it trusts Beijing, is now in danger of being expanded to include near-neighbor Indonesia. As the countries seek to formally ratify the recently concluded Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, known as IA-CEPA, business groups are encouraging Canberra to use this opportunity to build closer relations with this large and emerging economic powerhouse as a matter of priority. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly endorses these calls, saying: “We also need to build closer people-to-people relationships.” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said the same thing during a high-profile visit to Australia in February.

In many ways, the current bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia is very good. Australia continues to enjoy a positive working relationship between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police, which goes a long way toward keeping 1.2 million Australians safe while holidaying in Bali each year. The respective defense forces are increasing communications and activities, with Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds being Indonesia-savvy, having lived there some years ago. Senior officials within Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs work cooperatively, with the respective foreign ministers Marise Payne and Retno Marsudi in regular touch. And the relatively small but active business-to-business links continue to be very warm.

Yet this upbeat news about the relationship has one very large fault: its shallowness. Once we look beyond this good news rhetoric, we find a community here in Australia that, notwithstanding Bali, sees Indonesia through a prism of ignorance, distrust and ambivalence.

Regular surveys conducted by the highly respected Lowy Institute in Sydney show that Australians, including businesspeople, feel only very limited warmth toward Indonesians, rating our perceptions of them alongside Russians and Egyptians. This disturbing and narrow view of Indonesia thrives in the Peter Dutton-led Department of Home Affairs, whereby any serious effort to build “closer relations” with Indonesia through increased people-to-people contact is generally thwarted. 

The dilemma for Australia’s prime minister and his cabinet is, therefore, how to accommodate Dutton’s desire to maintain strict border controls by restricting the number of Indonesians coming into Australia, while building the critical people-to-people contacts both he and his colleagues espouse. Dutton has huge power within the federal cabinet and is backed by some senior public servants, including Australia’s previous ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, who has continually argued that the current draconian visa rules do not deter Indonesians from holidaying in Australia.

Last year, 9.1 million Indonesians traveled abroad, yet only 1.75 percent chose to holiday in Australia, primarily due to red tape and the cost of simply applying for a visa. A Balinese family of four must pay a nonrefundable fee of 560 Australian dollars ($380) to apply for a tourist visa to Australia, and each family member must answer a 17-page questionnaire as to why they wish to visit Australia and their background activities. The purpose and value of a 16-year-old girl being asked to declare if she has any previous record of “committing acts of genocide” highlights the level of paranoia within Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, though this is not confined to Australia, as similar questions are found in United States immigration questionnaires.

With more than 90 million Indonesians under 35 years of age, the era of short duration and short notice travel is now very much a part of Indonesian life. Young people are mobile. They use technology and that want to travel – fast. AirAsia, Jetstar and local Indonesian budget airlines offer a wide range of options for this large demographic to see the world, and with both Japan and India now joining some 70 countries allowing visa-free entry for Indonesians the destination options are huge – but not to Australia.

Australian government bureaucrats also continue to make it hard going for young Indonesians who wish to join the Working Holiday Program in Australia. This is generally an excellent program that operates in association with numerous other nations, providing opportunities for young people to actually live and work in another country for up to two years. Mostly, the young people work in cafes and hotels, on farms and in child care, and it provides an enormous opportunity for Australia to let young Indonesians stay for a limited time and better get to know Aussies and their culture.

Until two years ago, the number of Indonesians who were allowed to stay in Australia under this program was capped at 100 per year. Recently, the Australian government realized that this was an incredibly small quota, and it was increased to 1,000 per year. When the IA-CEPA trade agreement is finally ratified, this number may be increased to 5,000 per year. What is not mentioned, however, is just how hard it is for an Indonesian to obtain an Australian “holiday-work” visa. Often, when the annual intake is announced the initial quota is oversubscribed within eight hours because the program is so popular. It gets worse. To be considered, Indonesians need to prove they have at least $5,000 in the bank (a lot of money for an 18-year-old); they must obtain a formal letter from the Indonesian immigration department, take a tuberculosis test and other health checks (at a cost of $53); and they must obtain a police clearance, complete a formal visa application (nonrefundable, $326) and achieve a minimum English-language rating of 4.5, which is very high by any standard.

In the event that the number of applicants who are rejected, or who cannot meet the set criteria, falls below the intake quota it is formally recorded as “a below intake quota result,” which leads politicians to conclude that young Indonesians do not have a particularly strong interest in the program. 

So why does Australia talk constantly about “building closer people-to-people-links” with its neighbor, while making it very difficult or simply impossible for young Indonesians and tourists to visit? The Department of Home Affairs worries that if entry into Australia is made simpler and easier, then the path will be cleared for many Indonesians to stay and work in the country illegally. This concern is compounded by the increase in the number of Malaysian citizens who use their simplified visa application process to gain entry into Australia and then stay illegally or seek asylum. But this overly simplistic view misunderstands that Indonesians, like Australia’s own indigenous people, have a very deep and passionate link to their homeland. They actually love their country and simply don’t want to stay in Australia in the longer term. And those who currently do holiday in Australia have an excellent visa compliance record.

Some Australian state tourism ministers have argued that the federal government must act to make it simpler and cheaper for Indonesians to visit Australia. We currently attract a pitiful 106,000 Indonesian holidaymakers each year, compared to 225,000 Singaporeans and 209,000 Malaysians, costing the Australian tourism industry millions of dollars at a time when our economy is struggling. Their efforts are constantly thwarted by the “invisible hand” in Canberra.  

Meanwhile, despite the anger and protests from everyday Indonesians, their diplomats and government officials remain ambivalent about this issue, instead clapping about the 16.1 percent jump in Australian tourists to Bali when Indonesia removed its visa on arrival requirements in 2016. 

Indonesia, like Australia, has deep concerns about Chinese strategic plans in the region. As China aggressively expands its activities in the South China Sea, the challenge for Morrison and his cabinet is to build capacity in the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia by getting their border security policy and the critical people-to-people links between these two strategically important nations correctly balanced. Clearly, the current policy is anything but “balanced.”

Notwithstanding the impact on tourism caused by the coronavirus, failure to get this balance right will not only be to the detriment of Australia, but the entire region.

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  • user

    Excellent article. Australia has never been able to engage properly with Indonesia. India and Indonesia are now our largest democratic neighbours and we should be doing more to encourage two way travel between us. If only more Australians visited more of Indonesia outside Bali and the other tourist areas they would find a wonderful and diverse country.

    May 13, 2020 9:47 am