Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Impact Study – Historical (2015)

This report aimed to build a more complex understanding of what Australians think about Indonesia and why, along with the effect of public attitudes on bilateral relations. It analysed data from the 1940s until the present day to determine long-term trends in Australian attitudes towards Indonesia, and the extent to which they continue to affect contemporary relations. It combined more than six decades of polling data with qualitative research from the humanities and social sciences, analysis of literature examining the impact of public opinion on foreign policy, as well as interviews with key figures from government, academia and policy think tanks. 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.

Key findings

An integrated analysis of popular opinion polling and qualitative/historical research on public attitudes reveals that 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, and a lack of awareness of Indonesia’s democratisation since 1998 means those images 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 policy-making elites, by cultural productions, and 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 affected by popular opinion, increasingly vehement expressions of negative attitudes towards Indonesia have affected the government’s management of numerous issues, including those relating to Australians caught up in the Indonesian justice system, and the treatment of live cattle exported to Indonesia. Enduring negative opinions also bestow a legacy of tension and ongoing distrust in the bilateral relationship. However, Australian public opinion has also facilitated positive relations, with popular sympathy following the 2004 Asian Tsunami (to take one example) underpinning Australia’s subsequent aid package to Indonesia.

Key recommendations

Indonesia has been a focal point for a deep well of insecurity about Australia’s capacity for self-defence. This report recommends research on the causes of Australians’ sense of insecurity, and why it persists despite ongoing peace and stability. It is also recommended that political rhetoric that emphasises a narrative of threat or insecurity be muted.

This report recommends that Australian policy makers be realistic about the nature of Australian public opinion, recognising that popular wariness of Indonesia places limitations on the relationship.

Public opinion polls regarding Indonesia have provided consistent results over decades. It is recommended that more resources be dedicated to identifying and analysing the causes and drivers of perceptions, rather than merely repeating polling. More significant investment for research into history and cultural/media studies is recommended to help explain the drivers of Australian attitudes to Indonesia.

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.

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.



Sobocinska, Agnieszka (2017): Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Impact Study – Historical.pdf.
figshare. Paper.

Dr Sobocinska presented findings at the Australia-Indonesia Attitudes Seminar in May 2016.

Refereed journal article

Agnieszka Sobocinska (2017) ‘Measuring or Creating Attitudes? Seventy Years of Australian Public Opinion Polling about Indonesia’, Asian Studies Review, 41:3,371-388.



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