Saturday, March 26, 2016

Visa-free entry into Bali should be just the beginning.

By Ross B. Taylor AM

After a number of false starts and an even greater amount of flip-flopping, Indonesia has finally granted Australians visa-free entry into Bali.

For the almost one million Aussies who flock to our favourite island paradise each year, the removal of the Visa-on-Arrival (VoA) requirement will not only mean faster and easier processing times at Bali’s International Airport, but also save a family of four A$45.00 each in Visa fees. Overall, Australians will save $45 million per year a as a result of this decision, and Indonesian authorities are banking on at least some of these Aussie dollars being spend in the bars, cafes and theme parks around Bali.

This is a relatively rare good news story about Australia-Indonesia relations that has, for too many years, been based upon what goes wrong between two neighbours who embrace quite different cultures.

There is no doubt that the removal of the VoA requirement was helped enormously by the goodwill generated during Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s short visit to Jakarta last year. President Joko Widodo warmed to our new PM. The pictures of an Australian Prime Minister walking side-by-side with Indonesia’s conservative President, through a local market minus their suits and ties, was a smash-hit on social media throughout the archipelago. Not since the Keating days have we seen such a warm response to an Australian Leader. So how do we build on this good re-start?

During the past ten years politicians and public servants have acknowledged that the bi-lateral relationship lacks ‘ballast’ and that business is ‘underdone’. Nice words but nothing changed. My good friends Professor Colin Brown once told me that, "... whilst it is good to aspire to adding ballast to a relationship, the problem is that whilst ballast stops the ship from sinking, it doesn’t really take it anywhere." Welcome to Australia-Indonesia relations.

In recent weeks however, there are some very positive signs emerging that perhaps suggests finally we can move to build a truly closer connection with our giant neighbour and home to the World’s largest Muslim population. And the granting of visa-free entry to Bali for Australians should be seen as just the start.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop officially opened Australia's new embassy in Jakarta last week and a new consulate was opened in the Sulawesi capital of Makassar, further enhancing ties between the two nations. Australia’s Trade Minister Steve Ciobo seized the opportunity when he met with Indonesia’s new – and Western educated – Trade Minister, Thomas Lembong two weeks ago, suggesting that more Indonesians should come to Australia for temporary work within the services and hospitality sector. A great idea.

Young Indonesians working at our cafes would start the process of building close relations and understanding between our two countries; it certainly is needed. It is very common in most Australian cities these days to be served coffee by a young waiter from Brazil or Ireland, or anywhere in Europe for that matter. These young people come here under a Holiday-Work visa program that seeks to provide young people from overseas the opportunity to see Australia whilst being able to work temporarily to fund their travels around our big and amazing country.

But where are the young Indonesians? We see them in Bali and we know how polite, efficient and professional they are, but they are not coming here.

Three years ago Australia increased the number of young people from Indonesia who could access the holiday-work scheme from 500 to 1,000 per year. In 2014-2015 only 377 young people took-up the opportunity. Why? Because we simply make it too hard. How many young Australians have a ‘lazy’ $6,500 sitting in the bank, yet alone young Indonesians? Yet that is what we demand before a young person can even apply to visit us. And to make it almost impossible, we then demand they obtain a formal letter from their Ministry of Manpower approving their ‘appropriateness’ to be allowed in Australia.

Young people won’t waste their time, and this is a real lost-opportunity for both countries in terms of getting to really know each other.

Meanwhile, we happily accept Indonesia’s offer of visa-free entry into Bali, but still insist that Indonesians wanting to come to Australia for holidays and tourism must pay a non-refundable fee of $130.00 each just to apply for a visa. The actual forms consists of 15 pages of questions and no online options are available as yet. Maybe this is why last year only 55,000 Indonesian citizens came to Australia (for tourism purposes) compared to over 150,000 from both Singapore and Malaysia.

As our economy struggles following the end of the resources boom, tourism presents a huge opportunity for Australia, and Indonesia – only four-five hours away – with its middle-class population approaching 100 million is ready to travel. We need to welcome them and make it cheaper and easier for them to come here, spend their money and get to know us.

It’s time for Australia to take a far more mature view of our near neighbour; to open-up our minds to welcome Indonesians as friends and partners. Sure, they may not play cricket or footy, but they are mostly good people and do not serve to be rated alongside Russians and Egyptians as the most untrustworthy people we know.

The settings are now in place thanks to the Turnbull government. Now it’s up to all of us to finally reach out to our neighbours, get to know them better, and to look beyond just Bali.
26th March 2016

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