Today’s SMH reports the findings of a Lowy Institute poll on attitudes of Indonesians and Australians toward each other. The poll found that only 18% of Indonesians believed relations with Australia were improving. And if my own experiences with Indonesian journalists are any indication, such findings don’t come as a surprise. In January, I toured three Indonesian cities (Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta) with four Victorians on a Young Muslim Leaders Exchange Program organised by the Australia-Indonesia Institute. The tour lasted only 14 days. We met people from a broad range of political, religious, educational and cultural organisations. One of our first duties was to talk with the Indonesian press. The Press Conference, organised by staff at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, was an interesting affair. A representative of the Embassy briefed journalists on the multicultural and multi-religious policies pursued by the Australian government. The scribes were also told that Australia took good care of its Muslims, who weren’t subject to any official discrimination or vilification by the government. After this briefing, the journos were let loose on us. Now remember that here assembled were the cream of Indonesian media, many of whom were educated in Australian universities and were familiar with the domestic politics of Australia.I noticed one particular scribe had printouts of typically hostile articles published in the Op-Ed section of The Oz, especially ones by John Stone, Janet Albrechtsen and others. This journo wasn’t the only one asking us tough questions about the Cronulla riots and statements made by Liberal ministers and backbenchers.
Thankfully, most reporting and coverage of our tour was positive. However, it was an uncomfortable experience having to explain away the comments of people like Brendan Nelson and Bronwyn Bishop. We found that the Indonesian journos we met just didn’t believe the Embassy’s claims of Australia being a tolerant and multicultural society. Many would have read and noted influential opinions expressed in what the scribes knew were pro-government newspapers. And so we have the unfortunate spectacle of Alexander Downer and his department trying to sell Australian multiculturalism to the region while his leader and party colleagues were reinforcing all Indonesia’s stereotypes of Australians, by and large agreeing with the sentiments of the Cronulla rioters.