WA business will be heartened to hear that WA premier Mark McGowan will in early 2022 head-off to Asia with the objective to restore WA's status as a trustworthy and quality trading partner. This will be an important trip – obviously the first for several years - for the leader of a state where almost every family benefits from international trade.
But the premier will have some solid work to do in all the markets that he visits. The decision to cull the Minister for Asian Engagement role immediately following Labor’s huge election win in March, and then the subsequent decision to downgrade the WA trade offices in Indonesia, India and Korea, created the perception that WA was no longer deeply committed to its relationship with Asia.
The 'Hermit Kingdom' tag, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions and border closures, along with the premier's ill-considered decision to turn-back a bulk grain vessel coming to collect 50,000 tonne of wheat from WA farmers destined to Indonesia - as a critical ingredient to make noodles as Indonesia’s staple diet along with rice - only damaged our reputation further.
It is therefore surprising that Mr McGowan is, at this planning stage, intending to visit Japan, Korea and of course China, but will fly over, and not via, Indonesia, choosing to forgo the opportunity to make Jakarta his first-stop and to meet companies such as the Salim Group, a long-term partner of WA and owner of PT Indofood who make an astonishing 13 billion packets of noodles annually using mostly WA wheat, but where the Baltic states have recently made significant inroads.
It’s still not too late to add two days to the premier’s itinerary, and Mr McGowan could also use the opportunity to rebuild other important relationships throughout Indonesia – that is still predicted to become the World’s 4th largest economy by 2050. Just three hours flying time from Perth is the East Java capital of Surabaya, a large and dynamic city of over 16 million people. Already WA companies have established manufacturing, educational and retailing businesses there and a visit by WA’s premier would send a very strong signal that our state’s decision to establish a trade office in the emerging powerhouse city, over 30 years ago, was wise and far-sighted.
Mr McGowan could also take with him his senior tourism officials who could establish an attractive deal with airlines to attract Indonesians to holiday in WA in a Covid-safe environment. In 2019 over 9 million Indonesians went abroad, yet only 13,000 chose WA as a holiday destination, representing a 0.14% market share from a country just a few hours away. ‘Opportunity’ must surely come to mind provided our tourism agencies can move just part of their focus away from Europe and northern Asia towards the giant next door.
And we should not underestimate international education that is worth $2.1 billion to the WA economy and provides our state with another significant opportunity for increased growth given Perth’s location and internationally admired tertiary institutions such as Curtin University that already has strong links with Asia.
Mr McGowan is busy, and China is extremely important to WA, but Indonesia should not be overlooked by this government who to-date has failed to understand the already strong links between Indonesia and many WA companies, and the enormous opportunities that await us as over 90 million young people progress towards a middle-class standard-of-living and who want to travel, enjoy good food, use technology and have access to quality education and health.
Unfortunately within the WA state government’s public sector there are now no Indonesian specialists remaining; experts who could not only brief and encourage the premier to visit this emerging giant nation, but who could even arrange such a visit. This is truly disappointing situation for our state that should be demonstrating a far more genuine and open desire to re-build our tarnished relationship with such an important friend and partner.
The premier must include Indonesia on this, his first post Covid-19 overseas trip.
- Ross B Taylor AM is the president of the WA-based Indonesia Institute Inc.