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Going local in our relationship with Indonesia

Indonesia and Australia ace many similar challenges, such as intense flooding. AAP/Bagus Indahono

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman does not often make it into the Indonesian press, but he did in reports on the Queensland floods. These reports shared news space with coverage of the even more devastating flooding in Jakarta. Newman and the governor of the province of Jakarta, Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi - have much in common.

They face enormous challenges in trying to manage the recovery of their regions from the flooding, and more importantly, trying to ensure that the impact of future flooding is mitigated, if not entirely eliminated. Newman’s experience as Brisbane Lord Mayor during the 2011 floods may give him particular insights into the problems Jokowi faces.

They also face the daunting challenge of electoral success: both were recently elected on platforms of shaking up a tired regional government. Citizens’ expectations of their administrations are high – perhaps unrealistically so. Newman has already had some of the gloss knocked off his administration, while this dubious pleasure still awaits Jokowi.

Consideration of the political relationship between Australia and Indonesia usually focuses on the national level of government. From an Australian perspective, the dominant issue at this level for some time has been asylum seekers. The problem here is what is of major interest to Australia is of relatively minor interest to Indonesia, as I have previously suggested.

From an Indonesian perspective – there probably isn’t a dominant issue in terms of Australia. Concern is routinely expressed about Australian support for the separatist movement in Papua. There is also the occasional mixture of amusement and bewilderment about the degree of inconsistency – not to say downright instability - in the federal government and its policies. But that’s about it. Australia simply doesn’t loom large on the national radar.

Recently two respected Indonesian journalists [urged]( their fellow-citizens to “be nice to Australia, not for the sake of being nice, but for the sake of our national interests”. The phrase “whistling in the wind” comes to mind.

This focus on national politics is understandable, and perhaps necessary in terms of the formal relationship. But it is always going to be an imbalanced focus, more significant to Australia than to Indonesia. And the Australian public as a whole has shown a distinct disinterest in national political issues in Indonesia. The government’s Asian Century White Paper can insist on the diplomatic and strategic importance of Australia to Indonesia all it likes, but Australians simply aren’t listening.

The White Paper is right, and efforts to stimulate such interest in national politics in Indonesia need to continue. But the focus on national politics obscures the fact that - for the majority of citizens of both countries - it is decisions taken at the regional and local levels of government which impact most directly on their lives: issues such as flood mitigation, education, work opportunities, health services. It might, therefore, be more useful to focus efforts more at trying to stimulate Australians’ interests in Indonesia at the local level, rather than the national.

Indonesia is still struggling with the effects of the massive wave of political decentralisation put in place following the downfall of the Suharto government, with its powerful centralising imperative. With a few exceptions - including foreign affairs, defence and religious affairs - regional and local governments now effectively control day-to-day politics in Indonesia.

By contrast, Australia has a long history of decentralisation, as a federation. The word “federal” is the F-word as far as Indonesian politics is concerned. But in many respects, Indonesia is moving towards a quasi-federal system of government. At this level, Australians and Indonesians have a lot they could talk about and experiences they could share - outside the more complex national political issues.

Yet we have seen relatively little activity at this level. Western Australia is perhaps the most advanced state in this regard, maintaining a very active and successful trade office in Jakarta. This is perhaps all the more surprising given that the state Premier, Colin Barnett, seems adamantly opposed to setting foot in the country.

But where is the local government and community involvement, in both countries, in the exchange of ideas and information on fire services, flood rescue, culturally inclusive education, sporting competitions, the management of regional newspapers and television stations?

State and local governments, and local community organisations, should be thinking about their own foreign policies - in the context of the Asian Century, and in particular in the context of relations with their counterparts in Indonesia.

National political issues remain important. Australians and Indonesians alike should remain interested in what happens in the Canberra-Jakarta relationship. But this should not be at the expense of activity at the regional and local levels.

Campbell Newman and Jokowi face many of the same challenges. When are they next scheduled to meet?

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