When all is said and done, language is key to a better neighbourhood

The Prime Minister and his touring party are travelling to Indonesia this weekend as he promised. This is a vital visit and could head our new Prime Minister towards becoming one of our great leaders.

The Prime Minister and his touring party are travelling to Indonesia this weekend as he promised. This is a vital visit and could head our new Prime Minister towards becoming one of our great leaders.

Charlie has dug up the figures and says, "There is a lot at stake." For two such close neighbours, Australia and Indonesia are poles apart on two measures. First, Muslim-dominated Indonesia, ranks 4 (23 million). Second, Australia is in the top 10 in GDP per capita while Indonesia ranks 125. But a great convergence is well under way. In GDP, Indonesia is growing more than twice as quickly at 5.5 per cent compared with Australia's 2.4 per cent. While Australia's economy is currently 70 per cent bigger than Indonesia's, it seems likely we will be equals some time between 2030 and 2040.

Over some decades our neighbourly relations have worked well for both of us. Australia's foreign aid budget contributed more than $540 million to Indonesia last year and was responsible for greatly improved education services.

Like all good relationships the benefits have flowed both ways with Australia gaining $309 million worth of tourism in 2012 plus $581 million for our education services: significantly more than we spent on aid. But our biggest export was wheat, valued at $1.3 billion. Altogether our 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, we need to overcome some worrying attitudes if we are to realise the full potential of this relationship.

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

The first is to take advantage of what we have. Few in this weekend's touring party would know the National Gallery of Australia has the greatest collection of Indonesian textiles outside Indonesia. 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.

The second is to reverse the decline in Indonesian language teaching. Six Australian universities have closed their Bahasa Indonesian courses since 2004 and there has been a 40 per cent decline in the number of Australians studying Indonesian over the past decade.

In a submission to the Asian Century White Paper the point was made: "A child who starts Indonesian 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."

The Lowy Institute's most recent research shows that 70 per cent of Australians don't trust Muslim people.

Yet, I can tell you from my experience, Indonesians are good people, and good neighbours. We need to grow a new generation of understanding and language is the key.

Twenty years ago I heard Bill Clinton at a dinner in Melbourne tell us we needed to increase our understanding of Islam and Indonesian culture. He was right and we have been too slow in accepting his advice.

As my son, who has spoken Bahasa from his teens, says, if we get it right, life will be bagus (Bahasa for good) for both countries.