Wednesday 21 Aug 2019 | 12:00 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Aug 2019 | 12:00 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Ediplomacy detour in Indonesia

28 June 2012 12:54

Dr Shannon Smith, a Jakarta-based public relations consultant who was Counselor (Education) at the Australian Embassy, Jakarta, from 2005-2010, writes:

Thanks Fergus Hanson for a very thoughtful response to my riposte. Fergus brings the ediplomacy discussion usefully forward to where I think the conversation should be focused, and that is around public diplomacy.

It is fair to say that Australia has a reasonably positive reputation overseas, derived largely from the international successes of our arts community (musicians, artists and filmmakers), our sportspeople and our international corporate expansion. Our kangaroos, koalas and beaches contribute, though neutrally, as well.

Australian diplomats are generally highly regarded and form relationships with official counterparts, foreign media and broader elite audiences easily. But what they do is traditional diplomacy, which is about reaching decision makers and those who influence opinions, and it is often is around single issues (eg. a trade negotiation, or an arrested Australian). 

Public diplomacy differs because but it has a broader reach, it goes beyond the influential few to the masses, to those indifferent, ignorant or not seeking to know. It seeks out a new audience and encourages communities to adopt a positive and open outlook towards Australia.

My concern is that ediplomacy, such as the Australian Embassy’s Facebook page, is a diversion from the real business of public diplomacy, the kind that gets out into regular Indonesian communities (outreach). The public affairs and cultural sections in DFAT are constantly being squeezed of resources; and the Australia-Indonesia Institute’s funding has barely changed over the past decade.

In Indonesia, there are less than a handful of successful programs remaining. They being the Muslim Exchange and Youth Exchange programs from the Australia-Indonesia Institute; and the BRIDGE and Australian Scholarships promotion strategies, interestingly funded by AusAID but developed and managed by the Education Attache.

These programs, and I applaud their incredibly positive impact, do not and cannot reach 245 million Indonesians. But they are all that remains after years and years of substantial funding and program cuts. Australia once had in Indonesia what was arguably a more extensive education and culture presence than any other country.

The Australian Education Centres (AECs) in Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan annually generated over 300 newspaper and television news items. In any given year, this was between a third and a half of all stories generated by the entire Australian Embassy in Jakarta. 

And the AECs communicated directly to tens of thousands of young people every year, delivering presentations in classrooms or to school assemblies, answering questions at education fairs and exhibitions, working directly with teachers and local governments. For example, annually they delivered career-oriented My Future workshops to almost 5000 students and their parents.

 I have elsewhere described in detail what happened, but the AEC Network was shut down by the Government in 2010 and overnight the Australian Embassy lost practically half of its public diplomacy profile and capabilities. And the Government made savings of $200,000, the annual cost of running the AEC network.

Australia became the only country with a significant relationship with Indonesia that doesn’t have an educational or cultural presence in Jakarta. The Americans, the British, the Dutch, the Germans, the Italians, the Japanese, the French and a host of other countries are now much more visible than Australia.

What Australia does right now as public diplomacy is piecemeal, there is much less of it than before, and there is no coordination. Take for example Tourism Australia and AusAID, who both recently put out tenders for their campaigns in Indonesia. 

Tourism Australia sought an agency to provide 'marketing of Australia as a destination for leisure and business travel'. AusAID sought an agency to 'increase the profile of Australia and its [$500 million a year] contribution to Indonesia’s education sector through a concentrated public diplomacy strategy' with a budget of $2.2 million a year.

How they each went about it is interesting. AusAID, simply because its tender process is complicated and bound in red-tape (the RFT was 179 pages long with hundreds of pages of attachments), received tenders from its regular development assistance contractors. Tourism Australia, because its tender process was simple (a one-page RFT), received tenders from public relations firms. 

Tourism Australia will get public relations expertise. AusAID will get another managing contractor, when what they really want is an AEC network!

Photo courtesy of AusAID.