Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Impact Study – Historical

The ‘Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Impact Study – Historical’ was conducted by Dr. Agnieszka Sobocinska of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

The study, funded by the Australia-Indonesia Centre, analysed data from the 1940s until the present day to determine trends in Australian attitudes towards Indonesia, and the extent to which they affect bilateral relations.

It combines over six decades of polling data with qualitative research from the humanities and social sciences, analysis of theoretical literature examining the impact of public opinion on foreign policy, as well as interviews with key figures from government, academia and policy thinktanks.

What resulted is a holistic analysis of what Australians think about Indonesia, why they hold these attitudes, and how popular perceptions are politically significant in Australian-Indonesian relations.

The study was published in November 2015 and Dr Sobocinska presented the findings at the Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Seminar, hosted by Monash University in May 2016.

Key Findings

  • • Australian views about Indonesia are surprisingly stable and function on a dual track, with many Australians expressing a desire for closer relations with Indonesia while simultaneously nurturing a deep suspicion and anxiety that Indonesia poses a threat to Australian security.
  • •Insecurity about Australia’s nationhood and capacity for self-defence is a fundamental driver of anxiety regarding Indonesia.
  • Anxiety is compounded by widespread ignorance about Indonesian society and the widespread (false) assumption that Indonesia is militaristic and possibly expansionist. Dominant images were formed at a time when Indonesia was under authoritarian rule, but lack of awareness of Indonesia’s democratisation since 1998 means that they continue to hold sway.
  • Popular attitudes towards Indonesia are related to deeply ingrained historical anxieties about Asia as Australia’s Other. They are affected by depictions in the media and public statements by politicians and policymaking elites, by cultural productions as well as by direct personal contact, particularly through travel and tourism.
  • Popular attitudes towards Indonesia have had both direct and indirect influence on Australian foreign policy. Although policy makers deny that they are unduly influenced by popular opinion, increasingly vehement expressions of negative attitudes towards Indonesia have affected the government’s management of bilateral issues. Enduring negative opinions bestow a legacy of tension and ongoing distrust in the bilateral relationship. However, Australian public opinion has at times facilitated positive relations, with popular sympathy following the 2004 Asian Tsunami underpinning Australia’s subsequent aid package to Indonesia.

Recommendations

  1. This report recommends research into the causes of Australians’ sense of insecurity, and why it persists despite ongoing peace and stability. Indonesia has been a focal point for a deep well of insecurity about Australia’s capacity for self-defence. Such research should be conducted with the aim of leading to interventions to manage community fears. It is also recommended that political rhetoric that emphasises a narrative of threat or insecurity be muted.
  2. This report recommends that Australian policy makers are realistic about the nature of Australian public opinion, recognising that popular wariness of Indonesia places limitations on the relationship. Foreign policy initiatives must be carefully considered and fully explained to the public.
  3. It is recommended that more resources are dedicated to identifying and analysing the causes and drivers of perceptions, rather than merely repeating polling in the future. Public opinion polls regarding Indonesia have provided consistent results over decades. More significant investment for research in history and cultural/media studies is recommended to help explain the drivers of Australian attitudes to Indonesia.
  4. Considering the mediating effect on popular opinion of travel, it is recommended that programs encouraging travel and people-to-people relations between Australians and Indonesians receive widespread support. To avoid the risk of conflating experiences of Bali with Indonesia, these programs should aim to expose Australians to other parts of Indonesia.

Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Seminar

Dr Sobocinska presented her research at the Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Seminar, which took place at Monash University, Caulfield, May 2016. View her presentation below.