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Cultivating a strong relationship with Indonesia is in Australia's interest

The Prime Minister and his touring party are travelling to Indonesia this weekend as he promised.

The Prime Minister and his touring party are travelling to Indonesia this weekend as he promised.

This is a vital visit and could head Tony Abbott towards becoming one of our great leaders.

Charlie has dug up the figures and says, "There is a lot at stake." In gross domestic product terms, Indonesia is growing more than twice as quickly at 5.5 per cent compared with Australia's 2.4 per cent. While the Australian economy is now 70 per cent bigger than Indonesia's, it seems likely the two countries will be equals some time between 2030 and 2040.

Over the decades, our neighbourly relations have worked well for both. Australia's foreign aid budget contributed more than $540 million to Indonesia last year and was responsible, in particular, for greatly improved education services throughout the country.

And like all good relationships, the benefits have flowed both ways. Australia gained $309 million in tourism revenue last year plus $581 million for its education services: significantly more than what was spent on aid. But our biggest export was wheat, valued at $1.3 billion. Total exports to Indonesia were worth nearly $5 billion.

Given Indonesia's vast population and rising incomes, future growth in food, education, tourism and health exports seem assured. However, we need to overcome some worrying attitudes if we are to realise the full potential of this relationship.

Successive Lowy Institute polls since 2006 have demonstrated the wariness with which Australians and Indonesians regard one another. People smuggling, terrorism and our long-standing uneasiness with Asians - going back to the goldfields of the 1850s - have resulted in only a slight majority of Australians (54 per cent) believing that Muslim-dominated Indonesia "acts as a good neighbour". This needs to improve and there are two practical ways of doing it.

The first is to take advantage of what we already have. Few in this weekend's touring party would know that the National Gallery of Australia has the greatest collection of Indonesian textiles outside that country. Nothing builds understanding quicker than respect for a country's culture. A visit to the National Gallery for any Indonesian leader would be just as important as appointments at Parliament House. I hope our new government can launch a new era of innovative cultural exchange.

The second and most important thing is to immediately turn around the disturbing decline in Indonesian language-teaching in our schools and universities. Six Australian universities have closed their Indonesian language courses since 2004 and there has been a 40 per cent decline in the number of Australians studying Bahasa Indonesia over the last decade. It is estimated that 99 per cent of those studying the Indonesian language drop it by year 12.

This point was made in a submission to the "Asian Century" white paper. "A child who starts studying the Indonesian language in lower primary school now will emerge into the workforce by 2030. By that time, the Indonesian economy is estimated to be one of the top 10 in the world. If we get every child to speak Bahasa, we will have just declared another fortune for Australia."

This is vital because the Lowy Institute's most recent research shows that 70 per cent of Australians do not trust Muslims. And yet I can tell you from my own experience, Indonesians are good people, and good neighbours. We need to foster a new generation of understanding and language holds the key.

Twenty years ago, I heard Bill Clinton at a dinner at Melbourne's Crown tell us that we needed to increase our understanding of Islam and Indonesian culture. He was right. We have been too slow in accepting his advice. But as my son, who has spoken Bahasa from his teenage years, says: "If we get it right, life will be 'bagus' [Bahasa for 'good'] for both countries."

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