Peter Varghese: Australia-Indonesia partnership lacks ‘genuine resilience’

Officials in more than 20 federal agencies partnering with Indonesia have failed to bring the Australian public with them, says DFAT secretary Peter Varghese. Cooperation between the two countries, such as anti-terrorism and education, would better survive policy differences if ballasted by stronger community and business ties.

Australia and Indonesia face an immense gap in community awareness and understanding. When he addressed the Australian Parliament in 2010, former President Yudhoyono said:

“In Indonesia, there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia — those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to, or supports, separatist elements in our country.”

That view — as SBY made clear then — was, of course, woefully out of date. But five years on, these outmoded perceptions remain.

Likewise, the broad Australian understanding of Indonesia is poor. According to the recent Lowy Poll’s “feelings thermometer”, Australians feel as warm towards Indonesia as they do to Russia, and well below Malaysia and China. And only 34% regard Indonesia as a democracy.

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