Interview with the Hon. Dr. Craig Emerson

Earlier this month, CAUSINDY’s Nikkola Pickering-Rodda spoke to the Hon. Dr. Craig Emerson, federal member for Rankin and former Minister for Trade and Competitiveness. Dr. Emerson spoke about the importance of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. See below for this video’s transcript.

NPR: The Honourable Doctor Craig Emerson MP, Federal Labor Member for Rankin, is exceptionally well placed to speak with CAUSINDY this morning.

A distinguished federal parliamentary and public policy career over the past three decades has seen Dr Emerson at the forefront of the Australian-Indonesian bilateral relationship, beginning with his role as senior economic and environmental advisor to the reforming Hawke-Keating governments, which played such a crucial role in helping to steer Australia towards closer ties with its Asian neighbours and in particular Indonesia.

Dr Emerson has served Australia most recently as Minister for Trade and Competitiveness, Minister for Small Business and the Service Economy, and Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Trade and Tourism. To further his credentials, since 2012 Dr Emerson has played a key role in developing the government’s connections with Asia as Minister assisting the Prime Minister with Asian Century Policy. Dr Emerson it is a pleasure to be here with you this morning.

CE: Thank you, thank you very much for inviting me.

NPR: I’d like to start on the topic of youth. Everyone says that the Australia-Indonesia relationship is important, and they have been saying so for many years. However, the relationship has not yet achieved the strong interest of emphasis anticipated by the Keating government. Why should younger generations care about the relationship, and is there much to be excited about?

CE: There is a lot to be excited about. Indonesia is a country and neighbour on Australia’s doorstep. A country with 245 million people, amongst those 245 million are lots and lots of young people with a very young population. It is true that our friendship could be strengthened even further. Our commercial relationship definitely could. I’ve said before that our relationship is underdone. Young people could certainly take up the campaign for strengthening not only our commercial and economic relations, but also those bonds of friendship that are formed when people get to meet each other, bond through social settings and enjoy each others’ company in social settings.

NPR: Reflecting on the ways in which young people can be engaged, given that the rates of Indonesian language learning in Australia are at an all time low, what substantive policy should we put in place to encourage Indonesian literacy given that the White Paper identified Bahasa Indonesian as a priority language?

CE: One of the priority languages identified were Bahasa, and in doing so we were very conscious of the importance of the relationship and the very fact that Bahasa is not being taught in our schools and universities to the extent that it should be. It’s not actually a difficult language, and it has been a disappointment over the last 20 odd years that there has not been adequate interest. We want to build this into our every day school and university life, really encouraging people to study Bahasa because again it is human nature when you have Australian citizens who can speak Bahasa fluently for it to be appreciated by the Indonesians. This is a big push from the Labor government to spread the teaching of Bahasa through our schools and universities.

NPR: On a personal note, I went to Indonesia in 2010 and spent the year learning the language and culture and it really is a very easy language to learn compared to others.

CE: Yes, that’s right. It’s quite phonetic, hasn’t got hugely complicated grammatical structures. I think that this is going to be one of those relationships where we are on the threshold of history now. This is the relationship we really need to nurture now. We have a really good relationship at the governmental and academic level, but the people to people level is too much associated with Australians going to Bali. As important as that is to the Indonesian economy and to Australian experiences, there’s so much more to see and do. Indonesia has 17,300 islands – Bali is one of them, but there’s a lot more to see and a lot more people to meet.

NPR: I’m from WA originally, and there’s a portion of students there who think that Bali is part of the top of Western Australia.

CE: (laughs) that’s right – I’ve heard stories of people completing their immigration forms when coming back into Australia and where is asks ‘in which country did you spend the most time?’ they write Bali.

NPR: Quite exciting for us was the recent Q&A  special from Jakarta entitled Indonesia: More than Beef, Boats and Bali. Moving beyond the most commonly identified layers of the bilateral relationship, what do you as someone with extensive governmental, public policy and economic experience identify to be the most fundamental strengths in the relationship?

CE: There’s a lot of trust in the relationship, and I think that’s been developed largely over the past 20 years under the current administration Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has very much reached out to Australia and our present government has reached out to Indonesia. The conversations at the highest levels are very easy. There’s a lot of laughter, and we treat each other as friends. My own counterpart, Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, enjoy each others’ company. I think that’s a sign of a mature relationship. That, incidentally, is the sort of relationship we’ve had with the United States for a long period of time. At the top level, it’s all first name basis and friendly banter and then getting down to business. That’s where the Australia-Indonesia relationship is going. With the foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and Gita Wirjawan and of course President Yudhoyono. But of course we need to spread the engagement so that it’s not simply at the political level. Here I think we need to do more with Australian students studying in Indonesia. It may not be for the whole 3 year degree, but it may be a semester or a year that counts towards your degree back in Australia. Not only so you can get exposed to Indonesian ways of thinking, but the broader Indonesian way of life. Young people will never forget that. They will tell their children, they will tell their friends, and that’ll encourage more of that sort of interaction. The White Paper on the Asian Century was written overwhelmingly by a group of us who were economists. But we concluded nevertheless that the strongest gains we can make with our near neighbours are the personal bonds. It’s not through the big mathematical equations, but through reaching out and getting to know each other, enjoying each others’ company. You can do great things out of that.

NPR: I think that came out really strongly in the White Paper, and it’s exciting for us who aren’t involved in the business or government level to see that opening up.

CE: Yeah, and it wasn’t an accident nor the view of one person. The more we looked at it, the more we looked at using our economics training, the more we realised that it’s those personal contacts and relationships and the sense of trust that is built up over time is where we can do more and that’s where the real value is.

NPR: My next question is about trade and economics, ironically. The two way trade between Australia and Indonesia in 2011-12 was $14.9 billion dollars, an increase of 8.3% on the previous year and in line with positive and rapid trend growth. As the Former Trade Minister, what do you count as being the key successes in fostering this recent expansion.

CE: I think it’s in significant part that Indonesia itself is going through a very exciting phase of economic development. Indonesians are demanding quality products and services that Australia is producing. I think the fondness that Indonesians have for Australia helps there, so you’ll get tourism and certainly Australian tourists visiting Indonesia, the academic exchanges and the commercial engagements in accounting and finance, all of those are really important. As Indonesia’s economic development continues to deepen and spread right through Indonesia, you’re going to get more and more of that sort of demand. I hope that I’ve played some role in encouraging or facilitating more trade into Australia. We should never have the view that exports are good and imports are bad. Imports from Indonesia are good, they come here because they are competitive and that means that they are lower cost in many cases than domestic production or from other countries. We don’t have the same relationship that has been the cornerstone of our relationship with China which has been minerals and energy. So you don’t get the vast numbers associated with the trade with China, but we don’t seek to export massive quantities of iron ore or coal to Indonesia, and similarly neither does Indonesia to Australia. So it’s smaller, but it really is concentrating in those areas that I think are very much open for a lot more growth.

NPR: How do you think we can diversify and expand the trade relationship?

CE: In the end I’m a market economist and it won’t be government picking particular industries. But if you get the exchange of people, then the people see the opportunities. Then government can facilitate it through Austrade and may have some ideas. But we’re not a government that gets into central planning and decrees or determines particular industries that should be promoted. The more we have that two-way exchange of people increasingly led by young people, they will suss out the opportunities over time, and then you bring the government forces in behind to encourage that and support it, rather than getting the government  out the front saying ‘why don’t we try these things’. Governments don’t have the commercial exposure to do that. I think the right order is business people coming up with ideas and identifying opportunities, then having government support them.

NPR: We all know the Paul Keating quote: “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture it and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.” How right was Paul Keating in this assessment of Australian foreign policy? Is it inevitable that we must shift away from the old alliances of the US and the UK and fight our security in Asia through a partner like Indonesia, or is it not necessarily a balancing act?

CE: There’s no real necessity to make choices here. To be friendly with Indonesia doesn’t mean you have to be less friendly with someone else. We’re friendly people. Australian people are friendly people. Paul Keating was right. What’s happened in that period is of course democracy in Indonesia. I think Australian governments try to keep abreast of developments in the parties and the formations of governments. We have a fantastic embassy in Indonesia, which would be among the biggest, staffed with very professional people. The Indonesian side like them because they speak good Bahasa, are respectful and are funny and have a good time with their Indonesian counterparts. That’s the shopfront of our relationship with Indonesia, but behind that are all minsters who very much are very keen to support the nurturing of that relationship.

NPR: I’ve seen a recent photo of one of the young diplomats over there on one of the Indonesian pop singing competitions.

CE: That’d be right – they’re pretty big on singing over there. I might have a career! Not in Australia, but certainly in Indonesia.

NPR: How would you summarise the relationship in three words.

CE: Under-developed, That’s actually one word if you hyphenate it. The gap between the reality and the potential is bigger in our relationship with Indonesia than just about any other country. That gap might be seen to be a disappointment, but I see it as an opportunity. If you can see where you are and where you can be, and there’s a big gap between them, then dive into that gap and close it. I think that’s where we need to be going. It is a bit of a surprise if we reflect on the last 50 years why that gap hasn’t been closed to the extent that it could have, but let’s look forward. Let’s realise that that gap actually represents a fantastic opportunity.

NPR: I really like your positioning of that, it’s very exciting. People can tend to look towards the negative aspects in the relationship, but it doesn’t have to be like that.

In 30 seconds or less, what are some words of advice you would give to our delegates that are going to be at the conference, with the goal of connecting with other young people, building the dialogue and creating new ideas?

CE: My advice would be for this not to be a one off event. As much fun and enjoyment as that will involve, and it will create good memories, I think developing a programme for ongoing interaction is central to this. We’ve been talking about building the relationship, trust and friendship, but you can’t do that at one gathering on one occasion. So the follow up of travelling to each others’ countries and spending some real time there would be what I’m recommending.

Bringing a youth voice to the bilateral relationship: Part 2


Photo: AFP

Read the first post in this series here.

AIYA was broadly supportive of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper although we doubled down on our engagement through drafting an official response to the White Paper and releasing this through our media contacts. As in the original submission, a team of three were drafted, this time comprised of Arjuna Dibley, AIYA’s Executive Director, Director of Communications Tim Graham and CAUSINDY Director Chris Urbanski.

In our position paper, we doubled down on our advocacy over the working holiday visa scheme – which did not rate a mention in the White Paper, but which we saw as an issue that should be front-of-mind for Australian foreign affairs officers working on the relationship.

Like many other commentators following the White Paper’s release, we drew attention to:

  • A lack of specificity on ways and means to achieve the papers goals;
  • Goal-setting that was not time bound, or well targeted.

We called for a series of policy initiatives to the greater supply and demand for ‘Asia capability’ in the workforce, including:

  • Concessions for individual HECS contributions for tertiary subjects in Asian Studies or Asian languages;
  • Tax incentives or subsidies for ASX listed corporations who provide entry level positions for Asia country or language specialists holding formal qualifications in the field; and
  • Changes to government recruitment processes in favour of Asia-capable graduates, with avenues for public servants to develop Asia capabilities on the job.

At the heart of these recommendations is a belief that these Asia capabilities, such as language and cultural awareness, create a ‘public good’ by enabling Australia to deepen its economic engagement and improve its security through improved relationships with our Asia-Pacific neighbours.

While we still believe in this notion, these arguments are always difficult to advance as they require the uncertain and long term benefits of better regional engagement to be weighed against other pressing areas of Government concern. Every dollar devoted to Asian language training comes at the expense of a dollar of other subjects in the national curriculum, or health, welfare, overseas aid – and all at a time of fiscal constraint.

I’ll come back to this point shortly, but first want to introduce our most recent policy contribution – AIYA’s submission to the federal government’s Indonesia Country Strategy. This paper was greatly strengthened by adding some new faces to our policy team including Jess Laughlin, ANU Chapter President and Mike Tarn, a member of AIYA’s Western Australia chapter, who produced an outstanding document, and produced new insights into our members’ views through a refreshed survey.

In this submission, we changed our tack slightly from our response paper outlined above to 1) acknowledge the reality of the external operating environment – that government money does not grow on trees; and 2) deepen our thinking on what really is the right role of Government to play in fostering our engagement with the region – versus the role of the individual, business, or civil society (including AIYA). The new submission also included up-to-the-minute insight on our members’ views on the opportunities and impediments in the relationship

A lot of internal debate and reflection on our members’ survey led to us advancing more liberal arguments of Government as ‘market maker’ in Australia’s engagement with Asia: essentially building the railroad along which a two-way flow of public, business and civil engagement can flow. We also stressed the importance of cultural engagement and the value of people to people links in the relationship – direct insight from our survey of members who consistently rated these as the most important things to get right (as opposed to say economic, aid, or military engagement).

‘Build cultural awareness, and mutual understanding becomes easier’ was a recurrent theme in the data.

And so our paper landed on a discussion of opportunity areas and a set of recommendations that was centred on:

  • Fostering people to people links: through better people mobility, easier access to immigrations schemes and greater engagement among alumni of in-country education and training programs;
  • Cultural engagement: expanding on contemporary popular culture exchange such as OzFest, and developing an online cultural engagement strategy;
  • Asian capabilities in the workforce: with Government being a ‘market maker’ through defining the ‘framework’ for Asia language and skills and disseminating in the workforce.

You can see the full submission on the AIYA website, but suffice to say we’re extremely proud of the quality of our set of high impact, but cost effective and practical recommendations. And from early indications – others are too – keep an eye out for an AIYA mention when DFAT releases its Indonesia Country Strategy later this year!

As mentioned in my previous post – CAUSINDY will be a real engine for AIYA’s policy ideas and contribution to the public discourse in the years ahead. And you don’t need to be a delegate to contribute in this area – AIYA’s members’ survey is a great way to make your ideas known, as is getting involved in our policy work through AIYA’s chapters or at the national level.