Indonesia’s relationship with Australia spans decades and is now stronger than ever. Ambassador Quinlan spoke to NOW! Jakarta about the various areas of cooperation between the two countries.

H.E. Gary Quinlan AO​, Australian Ambassador to Indonesia. Photo courtesy of The Australian Embassy/NOW!JAKARTA

You’ve been Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia for six months now. Please tell us a bit about your career and where you have come from. What will be your particular areas of focus during your time in Indonesia?

I’m very happy to be in Indonesia, leading Australia’s largest embassy in the world and working on one of our most vital relationships. Before coming to Jakarta, I was a Deputy Secretary in Australia’s foreign ministry and also Australia’s Senior Official to ASEAN and to the East Asia Summit. So I visited Indonesia and worked with Indonesian officials frequently in that capacity. My most recent diplomatic posting was as Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, where I was Australia’s Representative on the United Nations Security Council in 2013-14.

A top priority for me will be expanding the scope of our cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. We’re having a lot of discussions about the Indo-Pacific, both bilaterally between ourselves and in regional forums like the East Asia Summit – what kind of future do we want for our region, what values and rules do we want to promote, how do we protect those that are under threat and what can we do together to achieve peace, stability and prosperity.

2018 was a busy year for the Australia-Indonesia relationship and for the region as a whole. How do you assess the relationship between the two countries?

Indeed, 2018 was a busy year for us. And I think the relationship is in great shape. We concluded negotiations on our free trade agreement, the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), and we elevated the status of our relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Both were announced during a visit by our Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the end of August. We’ve concluded a range of MoUs on the creative economy, transport, cyber cooperation, cooperation on countering narcotics, amongst others. We also held a Sub-Regional Meeting on Counter Terrorism in November that was co-hosted by Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Wiranto, and Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton. So all that has certainly kept us busy.

What parts of the bilateral relationship is there scope for improvement? What challenges need to be overcome?

Trade between Australia and Indonesia is still significantly below potential, which is why we’ve negotiated IA-CEPA. That should help stimulate trade and hopefully investment on both sides. I would also like to see more people-to-people connections between Australians and Indonesians. As close neighbours, it’s important that we understand each other, understand our differences, but also what we have in common. We have a lot of exchange programs that aim to do that. For example, we have a Muslim Exchange Program, which builds a greater understanding for Australians of the nature of Islam in Indonesia and, for Indonesians, a greater awareness of Australia’s multicultural society.

Otherwise, there are two new areas where we are pioneering cooperation. The first is on maritime issues. President Widodo has highlighted maritime issues as a priority for his government, and Australia shares an interest in many of these issues – illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, maritime security, upholding the Law of the Sea, supporting the growing blue economy, and protecting the marine environment.  Earlier this year, we agreed a Maritime Plan of Action with an AUD13 million capacity building package, supporting projects ranging from improving port safety and security to supporting Indonesia to become a regional leader on blue carbon.

The second new area is on digital issues. We held an Indonesia-Australia Digital Forum at the beginning of 2018 and followed up its success with a series of events in October, including an InnovationXchange workshop for Indonesian start-ups, an Indonesian business delegation visit to Australia, and an Indonesia-Australia Digital Showcase.

Both Indonesians and Australians will go to the polls in the first half of 2019. In a world in which democracy is in decline, how important is it that Indonesia and Australia set a good example?

Democracy is being challenged in many parts of the world, which makes it even more important for Indonesia and Australia to set a good example. We have each followed quite different democratic paths, but that is expected because democracy is not ‘one-size-fits-all’. Indonesia’s trajectory shows how much progress can be made in 20 years through commitment to ongoing reform and strong involvement from civil society. Indonesia’s experience also shows that logistical challenges of size and complexity can be overcome to hold successful elections on a massive scale. Australians find Indonesia’s achievement, so successfully holding elections across such a vast archipelago, very impressive. Australia has 3,300 polling stations, Indonesia has 800,000: a remarkable challenge.

Of course, democracy isn’t just about elections. Governments need to communicate with, and be accountable to, the people between election cycles. That’s something Australia does very well. Our example demonstrates how a political system underpinned by resilient democratic institutions – like an independent judiciary, a parliament regulated by checks and balances, strong civil society and a free press – can deliver good governance and inclusive economic growth. That was the theme of last year’s Bali Democracy Forum. Our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, spoke about this in one of the panel discussions and noted that forums like these were now even more important when the principles and institutions that underpin democracy are under attack.

Trade and investment links are a key part of the bilateral relationship. Where do you see the future areas of opportunity for Australian companies in Indonesia?

There a lot of areas where Australian business can help Indonesian industries to expand and succeed.  For example, as Indonesian mining, construction and infrastructure industries put greater focus on environmental performance, safety and efficiency, there are many Australian firms that have the solutions to help address these specific needs. It is these win-win situations that have a strong opportunity for growth.

As one of the world’s most reliable and high quality suppliers of agricultural products, we have been supplying raw materials to Indonesian manufacturers like Indo Mie for decades, allowing successful Indonesian companies to value add and export their products around the world.  IA-CEPA will provide greater opportunities for Australian producers in the grains, live cattle, dairy and horticulture sectors to supply Indonesian manufacturers with the products they need to build more profitable businesses and employ more Indonesian workers.

In addition, the Indonesian Government has prioritised the strengthening of its vocational and education training sector to develop its human resource capacities.  Australia has great capacity to help upskill Indonesia’s workforce to take advantage of higher paying jobs and address the skills gaps that are a challenge for many Indonesian businesses.  IA-CEPA will support these skills development priorities, by allowing Australian-owned vocational training providers to partner with Indonesian business to deliver high quality skills training. 

Australia’s development program in Indonesia is nearly 70 years old. How has it changed over the years and what are its key areas of focus today?

Our development partnership with Indonesia has constantly evolved over the past 70 years. We now work in an economic partnership that recognises Indonesia’s status – with Australia – as a G20 country. Australia is a source of innovation, ideas and expertise, not a provider of services that Indonesia itself can deliver.

Our development cooperation programs are agreed with the Indonesian Government and focus on three objectives – effective economic institutions and infrastructure, human development for a productive and healthy society, and an inclusive society through effective governance.

For example, Australia works with Indonesia to improve teacher quality and school curricula to help Indonesia achieve better results from its own spending on education.

Similarly, whereas previously we provided grants to fund infrastructure projects, like building and maintaining roads, now we work with Indonesia to build its capacity to manage infrastructure programs, provide technical advice on policy and regulations, help prepare Public Private Partnerships for infrastructure projects funded by Indonesia, and pilot new models of infrastructure development.


This article is originally from paper. Read NOW!Jakarta Magazine Jnuary 2019 issue“Celebrating 10 Years of NOW!JAKARTA”. Available at selected bookstore or SUBSCRIBE here.

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The article is produced by editorial team of NOW!Jakarta