Indonesia, Islam and Pauline Hanson

If you believe a recent poll, nearly half of Australians support Pauline Hanson’s call for a ban on muslim immigration to Australia. At the same time, more than three quarters of Australians recently told another pollster that Asia is the most important region in the world for our future economic prosperity. Between these figures is a gulf of Australian ignorance of our northern neighbour, the country with the largest muslim population in the world and the most underappreciated economic growth story in our region, Indonesia. It’s a gulf that highlights the challenge Australia again faces; responding to the short-term political challenge of Hansonism without causing long-term damage to our nation’s interests.

Even the most insular of Australians know the magnitude of China’s economic expansion and its implications for our own national prosperity. But few appreciate the similarly exponential trajectory forecast in our near north. The Indonesian economy is set to double by 2030, ranking it 5th in the world in purchasing-power-parity terms. As a result, it is estimated that between 8 and 9 million people will enter Indonesia’s middle class each year through to 2020. This alone is a major opportunity for Australian goods and services. Combine this economic opportunity with Indonesia’s location in a strategically critical position for Australia’s defence, and there is no other nation in Asia more important to our future than Indonesia.

Despite this, recent research commissioned by the Australia-Indonesia Centre highlights that Australian attitudes towards Indonesia are at best complacent and all too often ignorant. Less than half of Australians think to name it as a country in our region. Outdated stereotypes about the Indonesian government and its people abound. We rarely cast our gaze over the fence and when we do we see only an undifferentiated mass of humanity, rather than an increasingly progressive nation of more than 250 million diverse individuals.

It’s unsurprising in this context that we currently do more trade with New Zealand, a nation of just 4 million people, than we do with Indonesia. The number of Australian businesses with a presence in Indonesia has shrunk from 450 to a paltry 250 over the previous decade, while exports have slipped to $6.8bn in 2015.

Hanson’s ‘muslim ban’ would be a long-term catastrophe in this context. Asian-Australian diaspora communities have been a major asset in building relationships in our region. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, students, workers and ultimately, new Australian citizens have transformed our engagement with these nations. Indeed, 85% of respondents to the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll reported that ‘Chinese people you have met’ positively influenced their attitudes towards China. These communities, particularly the Chinese-Australian diaspora also have been critical channels for international trade and investment flows. There’s no reason the same couldn’t be true for Indonesia.

However, today, the Indonesian-Australian diaspora is relatively small. There are only around 50,000 Indonesian-Australians in our country today. Rather than imposing a ‘muslim ban’, dramatically expanding the number of personal relationships between Indonesians and Australians should be an urgent, long-term national priority. The Two Neighbours: Partners in Prosperity position paper makes good proposals for mutual skill recognition and the promotion of education cooperation in this regard.

But we should be thinking bigger. A large-scale strategic program to attract young, professional Indonesians to work in Australia could be a long term boon for our relationship. At present, the Australia-Indonesia working holiday visa program is capped at 1000 — less than a fifth of what we offer China. It’s not a program that’s commensurate with the scale of the opportunity or the urgency of the need.

Needless to say, while initiatives like this have the potential to change the way we engage with Indonesia over the medium term, they will not counter the immediate appeal of Pauline Hanson’s simplistic political snake oil amongst her supporters. You don’t change votes by telling anxious people that they really should be excited. As Peter Beattie showed a generation ago, responding to One Nation’s simplistic political snake oil demands sharp political strategy that aggressively responds to the legitimate grievances of the marginalised. The Beattie government did this by devolving public institutions closer to these communities and investing in communities in response to the legitimate economic and social insecurities that were expressed. At the same time, Beattie didn’t pander to scapegoating and maintained support for long term policy initiatives that could have been political flashpoints, like expanded Asian literacy education in Queensland schools and increased trade and investment relationships with the region.

The rise of Pauline Hanson might leave Australians who are interested in deeper engagement with our region with a feeling of de ja vu. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The rise of Pauline Hanson will inevitably increase the risk of political opportunists hijacking our engagement with our near north neighbour. But history shows that we can successfully fight these short-term challenges without sacrificing sensible, long term policy making.