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What Rudd can learn from Indonesia

If there is one thing we know from Kevin Rudd’s first period as Prime Minister it is that he was comfortable on the international stage. Although he inherited the date in his diary from Julia Gillard…

Kevin Rudd and Australia would do well to pay more attention to our northern neighbour. AAP Image

If there is one thing we know from Kevin Rudd’s first period as Prime Minister it is that he was comfortable on the international stage. Although he inherited the date in his diary from Julia Gillard, it is auspicious that his first trip as the country’s “new/old” Prime Minister is to visit his Indonesian counterpart President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

We hear so much about the exponential growth of China and India that it is all too easy to forget the Asian giant of economy and population just to our north.

Having worked for a number of years in Whitehall, I believe that for Australia to ignore Indonesia is the equivalent of Britain paying attention to Germany and Russia but ignoring France: strange, and probably not that clever.

This vast country of more than 240 million remains little understood. Familiar as many Australians might be with the road from Denpasar airport to an idyllic beach resort, Indonesia comprises more than 6,000 inhabited islands; is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and has more than 200 native ethnicities.

Images of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur blanketed in smoke from Sumatran forest fires, and people smugglers filmed with hidden cameras referring to desperate people as “goats”, only serve to strengthen our sense that Indonesia is a large and confused developing country. Yet no country should, or can, be understood by single events and what the media chooses to focus upon.

McKinsey estimate that by 2030, Indonesia will be home to an estimated 90 million additional consumers: more than in any economy apart from China and India. The statistics relating to the country’s growth and development are already staggering. Having largely weathered the global financial crisis, Indonesia now enjoys consistent annual growth of more than 6%.

The Gillard government’s Asian Century White Paper was a noble attempt to explain the key economic and strategic relationships that will confront us in the future. Yet the document only succeeds in presenting the broad economic and geopolitical dynamics of the region. It is important, but only as a first step in raising our awareness of how vital an understanding of Asia is to our physical, economic and environmental security.

Discussion of border protection will dominate Rudd’s visit. Every position adopted and decision made by the Prime Minister over the coming weeks will be skewed by domestic electoral considerations. The trick will be to demonstrate that Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats” slogan-based policy is more suited to the cartoon world of talkback radio, while a newly assertive and statesmanlike Rudd is able to reach practical and workable solutions that will stop the flow of migrants.

However, behind the pre-election positioning, lies an important set of strategic challenges every bit as important as border protection. Establishing and strengthening a positive and mutually re-enforcing relationship with our closest Asian neighbour is important to any Australian Prime Minister.

As with any positive relationship, Australia has as much to learn from Indonesia as they do from us. It might not be immediately apparent when you fly into Jakarta and straight into a smoke-filled haze of tropical humidity and congestion, but the Indonesian government has made sustainability and protecting what is left of its unique environment, which is rich in forest and charismatic fauna, a core policy concern.

Already the government has extended its moratorium on new forest and peat land licenses and has ambitious greenhouse emissions reduction targets in place.

These aren’t just interesting examples of a new approach to environmental politics and policy. Just as the smoke over Malaysia and Singapore is affecting people vast distances away, what Indonesia does to reduce emissions through avoided deforestation and by maintaining the rich carbon stores of their abundant peat land, stands to affect the climate and the atmosphere that we all share.

The role that avoided deforestation alone can play in reducing emissions is around 20% of the global task. This is equal to the emissions associated with all transport - every car, truck, plane and motorcycle in the world. Some of Indonesia’s major businesses are also looking to improve their environmental performance and credentials.

When I was in Jakarta last month, the first story I read in the Jakarta Post reported on Yudhoyono’s meeting with Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace on the Rainbow Warrior - the Indonesian President visiting perhaps the most potent symbol of environmentalist campaigning. Just last week Yudhoyono indicated that he wanted the continued input and assistance of Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs in helping inform and guide his country’s efforts on avoided de-forestation and climate change.

The existing Indonesian environmental policy agenda on no de-forestation is the equivalent to the Australian government committing to no new coal fired power stations: clear, unequivocal and authentic policy in the national interest.

In March this year the Rainbow Warrior travelled up the eastern seaboard via Sydney and Brisbane to draw attention to the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from new coal export infrastructure. Not a single Federal politician accepted the invitation to visit the boat. Kevin Rudd has spoken of engaging the young and pursuing a “new” politics. One can hope that our newly receptive and attentive Prime Minister might get some useful advice from his Indonesian counterpart.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Nick Rowley wrote; "Some of Indonesia’s major businesses are also looking to improve their environmental performance and credentials." Not sure that is going to work. Have you had a good scan of Indonesia using simple google maps, set to satellite? Perhaps comparing them to older satellite imagery, it tells the story.
    The deed has been done, there is not a lot of the real environment to save.
    In less than ten years forest has disappeared. Palm plantations are everywhere, replacing natural forest in all but remote inaccessible locations. So, the keywords 'improve their environmental performance and credentials' is highly subjective. By our standards its to little to late ,no matter what they do.
    A better path might be serious look at geo-engineering and the highly successful re-wilding concepts on former wilderness.

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    1. Nick Rowley

      Professor, Sydney Democracy Network at University of Sydney

      In reply to Paul Richards

      The story up to now has, indeed, not been a good one. Satellite imagery tells us much, but there is also important work being done on the ground to assess quite what remains and what can still be protected. There are enormous challenges in doing this, but one should not let the difficulty of the task be the reason for disengaging with it. There won't be any forest protected if we just decide that all attempts are useless and tokenistic. Your final sentence will need elaboration before I can judge quite what you mean. The 'what' questions tend to be considerably easier than the 'how' questions: a 'serious look' by whom? Have you any examples of the 'highly successful re-wilding concepts' in tropical rainforest? That would be both interesting and relevant . . .

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    2. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Nick Rowley

      Nick Rowley wrote; "Your final sentence will need elaboration before I can judge quite what you mean." As a follower of global warming since the mid seventies, study of environmental issues globally having a good education about economics. Take it for granted people see the values I do. Which is flawed thinking and I apologise for the reference to re-wilding and its potential.
      That is the point, the potential in tough ecosystems like North America are on record. The fast growing nature of rain…

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    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Nick Rowley wrote; "Have you any examples of the 'highly successful re-wilding concepts' in tropical rainforest?" Sorry missed the question. What rainforest? That is my point.
      There is almost none left, just a remnant, like New Zealand who have less then 2% of their natural forest last time I looked.

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  2. Venise Alstergren
    Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

    photographer, blogger.

    As a regular visitor to Borneo I fail to see the environmentally aware Indonesians suddenly appearing. The burning forests of Kalimantan deny everything the above article writes about. And anyone wishing to see what used to be seen in Indonesia is advised to go to Brunei and other parts of Borneo.

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  3. Venise Alstergren
    Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

    photographer, blogger.

    As a frequent visitor to Borneo I fail to see the environmentally aware Indonesian government at work.

    The burning forest fires of Kalimantan-cleared for such ignoble crops as palm oil can be seen and smelled for miles. Anyone wanting to see what used to exist in Indonesia is advised to go to Brunei and Sarawak.

    BTW Nick Rowley, according to Transparency International, on a scale of 183 countries, Indonesia comes in at number one hundred. Inglorious, to say the east. Yet you solemnly would ask your readers to believe your fanciful guff? Come on now.

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    1. Nick Rowley

      Professor, Sydney Democracy Network at University of Sydney

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Welcome to The Conversation Venise! If you wish to construct a paper tiger so that you can blow it down with a puff, then fine. But that isn't a conversation. Its a rant.

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  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Nick, Asian studies which have included Indonesia have been part of many Australian school curriculum for many a year, I myself having recall of such study some half a century ago so yes many Australians know of Indonesia having a population ten times ours, consisting of many islands and having a large percentage of their population of Islamic religious belief.

    We also know of the massive deforestation that has taken place, the smoke pollution not being new, the clearing of Orangutan habitats…

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    1. Nick Rowley

      Professor, Sydney Democracy Network at University of Sydney

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg - Thanks for these comments. A few points of clarification. 1. I am an Australian citizen and have lived in Australia since 1994 (apart from two years working in London). 2. All the data that I have found on Australian knowledge of and attitudes towards, Indonesia seems quite scant and largely negative 3. I was at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December 2009 and witnessed Kevin Rudd's efforts first hand. I wasn't advising him and have my views, but he surely represented the country…

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  5. Kevin Bain

    Teacher

    I give you credit Nick for jumping down from the platform and responding to commenters unlike many other TC authors. However, I would like to hear your response to Venise's point that Transparency International rates Indonesia very low, and why this reputable organisation can be disregarded.

    The best that can be said of your link which shows that "some of Indonesia’s major businesses are also looking to improve their environmental performance and credentials.business" is that it is in response…

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    1. Nick Rowley

      Professor, Sydney Democracy Network at University of Sydney

      In reply to Kevin Bain

      If I can, it is important to respond to serious questioning and debate. I was in Pekanbaru in the Riau province of Sumatra just three weeks ago and there was a major conference being conducted by Transparency International. I wasn't involved, but it was good to see the organisation so actively engaged. Corruption, lack of effective governance and - yes - transparency are clearly problems that Indonesia still has and is seeking to address. My point is that the ambition of the current government and…

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