On Saturday I went to see a speech that the Democrats’ Leader, Lyn Allison, was giving at a conference on Peace, Justice and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific Region, which was held in Brisbane as part of the opening of the Australian Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies. Also speaking in the same session was Bob Sercombe, the ALP Shadow Minister on the Pacific Islands. I think the creation of a specific Pacific Islands portfolio by the Labor Party was a good thing, as it tries to give more focus on a topic that should be getting it.
Despite the majority of Australia’s population living clustered on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, I believe that Australians have a very poor awareness of the different countries and societies in the southern Pacific region. They tend to be seen glibly as either a tropical paradise for a holiday or as social and economic basket-cases. My visits to Nauru brought home to me how little I really know about the Pacific region.
An example of valuable work done by a Senate Committee which has basically been ignored by the Government is the report Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island countries. This was a report which, while by no means having all the answers, none the less contains some good information and unanimous cross-party recommendations.
On Monday, the Indonesian President visited Canberra and spoke at a lunch in the Great Hall of Parliament House. This impressive Hall is often used for functions by visiting dignitaries, (although as I wrote last month, Prince Charles, who is only in line to be Australia’s next Head of State, wasn’t seen as worthy of it on his recent visit to Canberra).
Despite all the media talk about the terrorism risk and the importance of our relationship with Indonesia, I feel that, as with the Pacific, there is very little understanding or engagement between our two countries. I remain very concerned about Indonesia’s human rights abuses, especially in places like West Papua and Aceh. The inability to ensure appropriate behaviour from Kopassus (the Army Special Forces) remains a real problem which cannot be just ignored by Australia if we are going to develop another security agreement with Indonesia.
However, it should be acknowledged that, for a country so large and diverse – with a population of around 240 million people from a wide variety of different ethnic and language groups – and as poor as Indonesia, still shaking off the vestiges of authoritarian rule and institutionalised corruption, it is not easy to address these things. With the systems of governance still weak and factors like a substantial part of the military’s funding base coming from non-Government sources, reform is difficult and slow.
The more interchanges between people and connections we have at a social level with both South-East Asian and Pacific countries, the better our understandings will be of each other. This will make difficult issues like West Papua, corruption, poverty and environmental damage easier to address.
Footnote: An obscure but interesting (for me anyway) fact I discovered while writing this piece is that Indonesia and East Timor are some of the few places where the voting age is lower than 18, with the right to vote starting at age 17 or even younger if you are married. In Brazil, Nicaragua and Serbia & Montenegro you can vote from 16.