ALMOST 50 per cent of Australians believe Indonesia is a threat to our national security, according to a landmark study that testifies to government concern about the effect of popular attitudes on bilateral relations.
In the opinion poll ordered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, more people (59pc) agreed with the mostly misleading statement that Indonesia's law-making is based on Islamic codes than were able to recognise our neighbour as a democracy (47pc).
The survey of 1,202 people, carried out by Newspoll in 2012 and yet to be released, is the first of its kind and will be used in efforts to promote better "people to people" relations as DFAT pursues so-called public diplomacy.
The gap between popular suspicion and warm official relations has been shown by Lowy Institute polls but the latest 91-page study is more detailed and has added significance because it reveals a government anxious to know what underlies the often awkward state of public opinion.
"Despite (a third of Australians having visited the country), our factual knowledge of Indonesia is poor - and we know it," says the Newspoll report for DFAT.
Murdoch University's professor of Southeast Asian studies, David Hill, said he believed the study was the first to demonstrate a link between the learning of Indonesian language and more positive, informed attitudes to Indonesia.
In the survey, the No. 1 policy issue troubling Australians was people smuggling via Indonesia.
Only 9pc thought Indonesia had made a "strong effort" to do something about this, 31pc acknowledged a "moderate effort", and 18pc believed our neighbour had made no effort at all.
People were more concerned about the welfare of cattle sent to Indonesia than about fair treatment of our citizens in Indonesia's prisons and courts.
Two words that Australians most immediately associate with Indonesia were "holiday" and "Muslim", while nearly one fifth of those surveyed thought Bali was a country all its own.
More than two thirds saw Indonesia as corrupt, and only a quarter thought it had a good political system.
"Some attitudes are based on real problems that Indonesia faces - for example, corruption," said Indonesia expert Dave McRae of the Lowy Institute.
But other attitudes reflected prejudices - such as the apparent belief that Islamic codes are a major influence on Indonesia law.
"Prejudices are a concern, because they reduce the likelihood that individuals and businesses will take the initiative to engage with Indonesia, something that is needed to deepen bilateral ties," Dr McRae said.
- "As long as prejudices prevail, there will always be the risk also that Australia's politicians will play to these prejudices for domestic political gain, rather than act in the long term interests of the relationship." by: Bernard Lane
- From: The Australian