Engaging Asia

In the wake of the 2014 election of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, research by Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska into Australian attitudes towards Indonesia has informed the ways that the Australian Government strengthens and deepens relationships with Indonesia, and promoted greater understanding and cultural awareness between these countries.

With the support of the Australia-Indonesia Centre, this project examined Australian popular attitudes towards Indonesia since 1945, with a particular focus on the period from the 1970s. Using quantitative and qualitative research methods, Dr Sobocinska tracked the shifts in popular attitudes through numerous public opinion polls and interviews to identify key drivers of public opinion.

She found that Australian views about Indonesia have been remarkably stable since World War Two, with a tendency towards a desire for closer relations with their northern neighbours, while remaining suspicious of Indonesia from a security perspective. This suspicion arises from a sense of insecurity about Australia’s nationhood and capacity for self-defence. Compounding such Australian anxieties is a widespread ignorance about Indonesian society, and the false assumption that Indonesia is militaristic and holds expansionist ambitions for the region. These historic concerns have affected the Australian government’s management of bilateral issues.

Based on her findings, Dr Sobocinska made several recommendations to the Australian Government. First, further research into Australians’ sense of insecurity should be undertaken with the aim to manage community concerns, while deploying a more conciliatory and affirming political rhetoric. Second, policymakers should be more mindful of the wariness of Australians towards Indonesia and take care to better explain foreign policy initiatives. Third, a greater proportion of resources should be directed to understanding the drivers of Australian attitudes towards Indonesia, rather than simply polling. Last, the Australian Government should encourage greater people-to-people relations between Australians and Indonesia.

The Australia-Indonesia Centre read Dr Sobocinska’s report and recommendations in conjunction with a comprehensive survey conducted by research firm EY Sweeney. Together, these reports prompted local and international media coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald, Radio National (ABC), and the Jakarta Post to form the basis of briefings to the Commonwealth Government.

Chief Investigator Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska