Australia, Dryland Irrigation, environment, geography, National Party, Politics

Cubbie: An Uncle’s Tale

This is a story from Ronni Salt, @MsVeruca on Twitter. I’ve restructured it a little and added some supporting links, articles and active graphics.

“Back home at the farm,” she said, “uncle called and regaled us with a yarn about Cubbie Station, the largest private water holder in the southern hemisphere.” The gist of his story is this.

Cubbie is a series of holdings located near Dirranbandi and St George in South West Queensland. It’s total area is 930 sq kilometres containing 22 sq. kilometres of irrigated fields. These days it’s owned by a Chinese and Japanese consortium. It can suck up to 500,000 megalitres of water from . . .the Darling Riverine plains, starving the rivers, towns & floodplains downstream of water. (A megalitre is 1 million litres of water) To emphasise, Cubbie Station’s water allocation can leech the equivalent of an entire Sydney Harbour out of Australia’s waterways yearly.

Since uncle sat on several federal environmental committees back in the 90s, and 2000s, he was familiar with David Kemp,  Minister for Environment and Heritage from November 2001 to July 2004 and also Vice-President of the Executive Council from October 1998 to July 2004.

Uncle also met John Howard in those days, along with a new senator from Queensland, a man that always had ‘an aggressive interest in Cubbie Station.”

Buying Back Cubbie

In 2002-05 Cubbie Station wasn’t doing too well & was quietly on the market. The asking price was about $300 million & uncle says his fed govt committee contacted David Kemp & the Howard govt in 2004 urging them to purchase the property.

This committee was made up of scientists, academics, farmers & Indigenous reps & they all warned the federal govt that Cubbie Station’s massive water holdings were a disaster waiting to happen. The fed govt had the opportunity to put all those millions of litres of water back.

This move to buy back Cubbie and its water rights drew widespread support.

In 2006, WESTERN NSW mayors and irrigators are urging the Government to buy Australia’s biggest irrigated cotton farm, Cubbie Station, as the most effective means of returning water to the stressed Murray-Darling Basin.

The Federal government refused saying “the compulsory purchase of irrigation entitlements is not on its agenda.” 

Uncle continued, “It was environmental vandalism of a kind I’ve never seen before & the Queenslanders were the biggest vandals.”

So, the Howard Govt sought advice from the Nationals. The Nationals sought advice in particular from a young gun candidate who lived in the area that. They had up for the Senate in the 2004 election. The new guy had a large accounting practice in the Cubbie Station area & his clients also included many of the irrigators sucking the #MurrayDarling system dry.

Journalist Phil Dickie flags the problem as early as 2001.

What was now consolidating as a major problem had already been flagged by journalist Phil Dickie, back in May 2001. Phil’s investigative journalism was highly regarded and had already been instrumental in bringing on the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland.

In this instance Phil wrote;

Rogue elements of Queensland’s farming and fishing communities seem to have a fairly simple approach to natural resource management – use, grab or destroy as much of the resource as possible while tying the government up with an endless stream of demands for more and better consultation.

Down on the lower Balonne however, where Queensland’s one-third share of the Murray Darling Basin slips into New South Wales, the strategy has come suddenly unstuck.

The Queensland government, staggered at the scale of a two year dam building orgy that threatens to completely derail attempts to cap water usage on the river, last month slapped a ban on the bulldozers knocking up dam walls all along the river.

Years of lax interpretations of tax laws has meant that in rural Queensland an outdoor dunny can need more planning permission than a 50,000 mL dam with walls no more than 4.99 metres high.

Around St George and Dirranbandi, cotton growers and water hoarders now have about 40,000 hectares of dams at best four metres deep in an area where the annual evaporation rate is about two metres a year.

More than half of this storage has been shoved up in the last two years in such a way that extensive leakage of the water resource is going to be as much a factor as massive evaporation.

Around a third of all the storage is on just one property, Cubbie station, with enough capacity to more than swallow up Sydney Harbour. Cubbie holds licences which mean that in a good year, even more water than this can be taken from the river, for the total payment to the State of just $3700 a year.

“Effectively, their water is free,” said Queensland Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Mr Rod Welford.

For St George Irrigation Area cotton grower Ray Kidd the water is anything but free. He pays about $30,000 a year for his allocation of around 1000 mL from the government’s Beardmore Dam, and pays even when the government can’t supply the water.

Of course such commentary failed to stop the events uncle revealed in his story

The Sinkhole Exposed

Continuing he explained that Cubbie Group Ltd donated thousands & thousands of dollars to the young gun’s senate election campaign. According to uncle, the young gun was good friends with many in The Sinkhole – the nickname given to the powerful irrigators and National Party supporters of that area who take all the water meant for the rivers, floodplains and towns along the darling.

Further explaining the work of The Sinkhole on  29 August 2005 The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece under the heading, A National Party that is anything but. It’s lead paragraph confirms uncles view. It reads:

At the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club last Tuesday, 45 farmers confronted the Sinkhole. It is an uneven struggle. The Sinkhole is huge, wealthy and politically connected. It is a goldmine for the few and a disaster for the many. It also serves as the embodiment of the National Party’s drift towards becoming a collection of featherweights, opportunists and “states-rights” fundamentalists who call themselves “Nationals” yet are anything but.

National disgrace perhaps. This is a party that won 5.8 per cent of the national vote at last year’s federal election and is now in the process of blackmailing the 94.2 per cent who didn’t for vote it.

The Sinkhole, for example, breaks every rule of communal morality. It is better known as Cubbie Station, and it is an act of economic war by one state, Queensland, against another state, NSW. Cubbie is a source of rage for the former NSW premier, Bob Carr. Privately, he urged his fellow Labor Premier, Peter Beattie, to buy the station and take it out of production for the national good. Beattie was sympathetic, but Queensland is Queensland, the bulldozer is still king, and the Queensland Nats will die in a ditch to protect Cubbie Station.

Consequences of large scale Cotton Farming

These Aussie Fishermen Cradling Dead Fish 

One of the young gun’s prominent & vocal supporters in his race for the senate was a man named John Grabbe, who was also coincidentally the Managing Director of – Cubbie Station.

And the young gun senator from Queensland’s name? Barnaby Joyce.

Barnaby Joyce and the Shepparton Pub Talk

Still a militant advocate for the irrigators Barnaby Joyce has, according to journalist Phillip Coorey, confirmed that under Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership he effectively made Turnbull:

take water away from the environment portfolio and give it to him so he could protect upstream interests.

 Phillip Coorey’s assertion in an article from 27 July, 2017, is based on the recording of a speech made by Joyce in which he rubbished the ABC Four Corners report on the previous Thursday night while talking to irrigators in a Shepparton pub.

While the recording is available in the original article it is worth drawing out two paragraphs by way of conclusion:

He said:

We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask,” he said in the recording.

A couple of nights ago on Four Corners, you know what that’s all about? It’s about them trying to take more water off you, trying to create a calamity. A calamity for which the solution is to take more water off you, shut more of your towns down.

environment, geography, Health, Indonesia, Singapore

#Indonesian #peatlands are torched again as the #burning season gets underway

I wasn’t expecting things to deteriorate quite as quickly as they have today.



Just in case readers aren’t familiar with this Air Quality Index scale, readings are based on several factors but the figure 248 refers to parts per million of particles 2.5 microns in size.  These have a capacity to enter the lungs and remain deep inside.



So, where is all this smoke haze coming from today.

First, here is yesterdays wind map showing hotspots in the ASEAN region.  There are two in Sumatra.



Here is a map showing palm oil plantations and peat domes in Sumatra.

Oil palm map


Without doing a precise mapping exercise to match the active hotspots with peat domes, it’s still obvious that the most likely source of Singapore’s smoke haze pollution right now is a hot spot  west south west of Palembang.  At the time of writing Palembang is at AQI 54 but this is a PM 10 reading

Indonesia’s hot spots

The Straits Times recently carried this video from Reuters

Today the Straits Times carried this article.


Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

#BookLaunch of ‘Seen & Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’


This is a Chitter Media Production, produced and edited by Adrian Metlenko, camera operators Adrian Metlenko and Evan Darnley-Pentes.


A Twitter conversation on the eve of an execution: a polylogic epistalory story



Speaking to the CSIRO Forum on 25 November 2013 in an address titled Indonesia: What Asia’s Third Giant Means for Australia, and Australian Business, former Australian Foreign Minister, now Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, reminded the audience of his often quoted comment that, “No two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unalike as Australia and Indonesia. We differ in language, culture, religion, history, ethnicity, population size, and in political, legal and social systems.”

This was no more evident in this Twitter dialogue I had with an Indonesian on the eve of the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

After the conversation I harvested the Tweets using Storify.  Since then Storify is now available as a plugin.

I had the complete story here for a while but the varying bandwidths and Internet speeds available to me in Singapore and my contact in Lombok tended to throw the tweets, and therefore the story, out of sequence.

After having a few academic and journalistic friends read over the finished story I’ve decided to adjust the timeline so the chronology of the dialogue is easier to follow.  The content remains but the order will change.

The full story will be published in my next book of short stories.

In the meantime, here is a fragment.


Twitter’s jumble of countervailing opinions can be confusing yet it can take us beyond the managed news cycle of media conglomerates and ‘official’ versions of the truth. It’s 140 character thought bubbles are a rich source of opinions, propaganda, prejudice, polemic, current trends and information.

Riley is well know criminal lawyer. I’d followed him on Twitter for around four years and respected his opinions. He tended to attract followers rather than follow others. Sure this did speak of a large ego but overall his take on human rights and social justice warranted attention.

One evening Riley was engaged in an exchange of Tweets on the impending execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

I sent him a supportive Tweet, then noticed a stream of Tweets direct at him from someone called Sarling. Next moment a tweet from Sarling popped up in my notifications.

Maximos is this also u call as good law?

Why is Sarling involving me?

Of course, he’s included me because I tweeted support to @Riley. Odd that he’s singled me out. What does he mean?

Is it he? I don’t know. It’ll do for the moment. I must check some Sarling tweets to make sense of this.

Okay, it seems as though Sarling is Indonesian, from Lombok. He’s expressive in English but struggling with word choice and syntax.It feels like school-boy English supplemented by time on the fringes of the tourist industry.

There’s lots of the swearing in his tweets. That’s uncommon amongst most Indonesian women I’ve met. I reckon he’s almost certainly a young man.

Maximos They deserve to die soo many good kids die as junkies cos of them.

Another one so soon. Mmm expressing Jokowi’s position it seems.

Maximos Our justice system kill bali blast n release the queen of mariyuana corby (oops she just victims some body put it in her bag)

This is a bit controversial, so where’s this going?

Maximos none off you protest when we kill bali blast or maybe hipocrit coz u also killing at middle east.

Alluding to double standards, interesting, but directing that at me is not on. Well at least he says ‘maybe’.

He’s right about the killing in the Middle East. There’s more than a little hypocrisy in the world around that elephant in the room. That crazy Coalition of the Willing seriously destabilised Iraq and Syria.

I was clear about my opposition to capital punishment for the Bali bombers. Of course Sarling wouldn’t have the vaguest clue about my involvement in the bombing relief effort.

This is like a red rag to a bull, for me. Better tone it down though.

So what’s the best way to reply and not raise the emotional tone? He’s been struggling a little with English so definitely in Indonesian.

Sarling Why do you think I supported capital punishment for the perpetrators of Bali Blast or the war in the Middle East?

Maximos because you said nothing when your government did.

That’s better a clear response in Bahasa.

He has a point, but it’s a generic you and not one applying specifically to me. I understand why he’s saying this. Back in August 2003 , when Bali bomber Amrozi was sentrenced to death, John Howard really over stepped the mark on Australia’s opposition to capital punishment. He played the populist card as usual. I still remember the interview with Mark Colvin on PM.



Aboriginal, Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

Can Australia ever have sovereign borders? We never really have and the porosity is ancient.

A simple Google search reveals that as an adjective sovereign means ‘possessing supreme or ultimate power. These words are also offered as synonyms: supreme, absolute, unlimited, unrestricted, unrestrained, unbounded, boundless, infinite, ultimate, total, unconditional, full, utter, paramount.

Powerful as the invocation of sovereign might be the simple answer to the question ‘Can Australia Ever Have Sovereign Borders?’ is no. Yet in the land that is girt by the myth of the sovereign border has the power of reality. While we Australians might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

In the face of this simplicity, I offer a very simple post. It’s pitched at secondary school level.

The ice age
During the Ice Age the seas between Indonesia and Australia were lower and also narrower than now. At this time Australia was actually connected to the land masses of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. Theoretically it would have been possible to walk between present day Darwin and Merauke in about three weeks.

Australia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea formed a continent that geographers call Sahul. The rest of Indonesia, west of Lombok, on the other side of the Wallace line, with its tigers, rhinos and elephants is part of Sunda and is closely allied with the rest of Asia. Eastern Indonesia has strong and unmistakable biogeographic links with Australia.

New Guinea including West Papua was originally a northern peninsula of Australia. Both areas have largely Australian fauna and flora. Egg-laying mannals such as echidnas, marsupials such as kangaroos and cuscus, birds like bower birds, cockatoos and birds of paradise, and reptiles such as skinks and side-necked tortoises are common.  Amongst the plants lillipilli, eucalypts and melaleuca, are all testimony to ancient links with Australia. There is even a close relative of the Huon Pine growing in the mountains of West Papua and some of the indigenous Melanesian people of West Papua have recently claimed to have seen an animal resembling the Thylacine inhabiting mountainous areas.

The Settlement of Australia
Whenever settlement began movement must have been through the archipelago to the north. It probably began around 70,000 years before the present.

The Dingo
About 4 000 years ago the Dingo appeared in Australia. The Dingo resembles the Ajag (anjing hutan) which originates on mainland Asia and Sunda. It probably migrated into Sahul, perhaps with help from people. It was probably brought to Australia by people. It is likely these people came from Indonesia or Nusantara as it was called in former times.

Ajag (Cuon alpinus)
Ajag (Cuon alpinus)


The Baiini Story
The Yirrkala people of Arnhem Land tell of a people called the Baiini who came from the north. They are said to have arrived in sailing ships as families, long before European settlement in Australia.

The Baiini built houses of stone and timber on the shore line. They planted rice which they called luda. As well as this, the Baiini wove brightly coloured cloth called jalajal and wore colourful sarongs.

It is said that the Baiini finally left Australia sailing back over the sea to the north, leaving behind their rice lands. Today a kind of grass grows on these lands; it is used as food by the Aboriginal people.

The stories of the Baiini were passed on by word of mouth. It is difficult to know whether these stories are mythology or not.

Sailings ships and monsoon winds
When people developed sailing canoes, and later sailing ships, travel by sea became possible. This probably made contact between Indonesia and Australia easier. The north west monsoons helps sailing ships travel from Indonesia to Australia. When the winds reverse direction, at the beginning of the south east monsoon, the return journey to Indonesia is possible.

The earliest recorded contact
Makassan, Bajo and Buginese fishermen regularly sailed into northern Australian waters from at least 1650. These voyages probably began during the time of the Makassan kingdom of Gowa. The Makassan and Buginese sailors called Arnhem Land, Marege, and they called the north western parts of Australia, Kayu Jawa.

Unlike the legendary Baiini the Makassans, Bajo and Buginese brought no families with them. They voyaged in fleets of 30 to 60 praus, each boat had up to 30 men on board. Their objective was to fish for trepang which they smoked. Then they carried the trepang back to Sulawesi from where it was exported to China.

Fishing fleets “fished three areas: the Northern Territory coast from Cape Don to the Gulf of Carpentaria; parts of the Kimberley coast of Western Australia from Cape Londonderry to Cape Leveque and perhaps further south towards Port Hedland; and the offshore reefs and islands in the Timor Sea.” See, Natasha Stacey, ‘Boats to Burn – Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone. Ch.4 pp58 ANU Press 2007

Their voyages were timed so that they arrived on the north coast of Australia in December which was the beginning of the wet season. They returned home in March or April at the end of the wet season.

The trepang fisherman built temporary houses, dug wells and planted tamarind trees. The groves of tamarind trees which they planted exist today.

Aboriginal people, like the Yolgnu, worked for the trepang fishermen, learning their language, adopting the habit of tobacco smoking, painting pictures of perau, learning their dances and borrowing some of their stories.

Some people went with the fishermen on their return voyage to Sulawesi, returning with the next monsoon, some remained in Sulawesi.

The influence of the Macassans, Bajo and Bugis, in particular, can still be seen today in the language and customs of the people.

Listen to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu.


For a more scholarly account of the pre-European settlerment of the north and the Macassan voyages read ‘Turning The Map Upside Down’ by Regina Ganter

Trade with Australia’s European settlers
When food supplies dwindled and the colony of New South Wales faced starvation the first ship to bring relief was the Waaksamheyd, in 1790. It brought supplies from Batavia (Jakarta), including 171 barrels of beef, 172 barrels of pork, 39 barrels of flour, 4,500 kilograms of sugar and 31,000 kilograms of rice.

Traditional fishing today
Traditional Indonesian fishermen continue to visit Australian waters. They fish around the reefs and islands between Australia and Indonesia. Although these are now Australian waters traditional Indonesian fishermen are granted fishing rights. In return for fishing rights they must use traditional sailing boats and traditional fishing techniques.

Ashmore reef is a group of three small islands. It is a National Nature Reserve, administered by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. No fishing is permitted in the reserve, but fishermen are permitted to land on West island to obtain water. The reef was known to Macassan, Bajo, Bugis and Rotenese before it became part of Australia.

Australia's Environmentally Sensitive Maritime Border
Australia’s Maritime Border

Natasha Stacey writes that “During a visit to Kupang in 1803, Flinders obtained information linking Macassan trepang fishing activity to ‘a dry shoal lying to the south of Rottee [Rote]’ (probably Ashmore Reef) and met a number of Macassans on the coast of northern Australia in the same year (Flinders 1814: 257). 2 Since Ashmore Reef has a supply of fresh water and a sheltered lagoon, it has long been an important ‘staging post’ for Indonesian perahu on their voyages further south to other islands and reefs (Fox 1998: 117). Matthew Flinders learned of the existence of Ashmore Reef in Kupang.” op cit page 59

Australia, history, Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

The #ParthenonMarblesAustralia Website is Now Live

Last night the new website of the International Organising Committee – Australia – For The Restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles, was launched at the Athenian Restaurant, Sydney.   Designed by Dennis Tritaris from Orama Communications, I believe it represents a new standard in website design.  Dennis has created a website that has the potential to make full use of Web2.0 tools to mobilise the truly global nature of this issue, connecting those of us who care about restitution without regard for national borders.  The new website is an expression of the international focus of the Australian committee.

The restoration of the Parthenon

Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is probably the world’s most well-known cultural property dispute.

Legal Opinion

A significant body of legal opinion acknowledges the illegality of Britain’s retention of the largest part of the Parthenon Marbles. George Bizos,  Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, Professor David RudenstineChristopher Hitchens, and Michael J Reppas, just to mention a few, note the illegality.

Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis’ opinion is summarised at the Elginism website in a report by ARTINFO, published: August 29, 2008 which reads:

A professor from the University of Crete has called into question the sole document that the British Museum has found in recent years to support its legal ownership of the Elgin Marbles, reports the Times of London.

According to the museum, the 1801 document is an Italian translation of an Ottoman firman, or license, in which the Sultan’s grand vizier was authorized to permit the Earl of Elgin to take the sculptures. Elgin took the marbles between 1801 and 1805, and Britain’s argument has long been that the move was legal, because he asked for permission from the Turks, whose empire ruled Greece at the time. They also say that he saved the sculptures from likely damage and deterioration during the Greek-Turk conflict.

But Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, a specialist in Ottoman law, now says that the original firman, on which the translation is based, could not have been legal, because it is missing the Sultan’s emblem and signature, and an invocation to God. Dimitriadis claims that, by law, only the Sultan could issue a valid firman.

Another examination of the legal issues and developments in international law can be found in a paper ‘Cultural Property and the Shortcomings of International Law: A Case Study on the Looting of the Parthenon‘ by Michael J Reppas Esq.

There’s not time to cover the entire range of legal opinion on this blog, but in essence many lawyers point to the absence of any legitimate documentation sanctioning Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Parthenon.

Far deeper than legalities

Of course the matter is far deeper than legalities.  My friend Emanuel J Comino AM often reminds me of the significance of the Parthenon as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the city-state of Athens, birth place of democracy.  This is really the heart of the matter.  All would do well to consider the gravity of the Elgin’s act which in cultural terms is an affront to the city-state that gave us the very notion of democracy.  This temple of Athena was the centre of a state that developed the very foundations of a political system that so many of us take for granted and that our Greek friends are privileged to hold as a centre in their cultural tradition.  The inner strength afforded by such a noble history is constantly revealed in Hellenic character and traditions.  Such strength can be observed in the ability to retain a cultural focus despite Τουρκοκρατία (Turkish rule) from the 15th century until the declaration of Greek independence in 1821.

The removal of the Parthenon Marbles is an affront to these traditions and an affront to democracy.  In case we are in any doubt about the nature and character of that democracy, I leave the last word to Pericles.  In his funeral oration for those who fell defending Attica from the Spartans he wrote:

“For our system of government does not copy the systems of our neighbours; we are a model to them, not they to us. Our constitution is called a democracy,because power rests in the hands not of the few but of the many. Our laws guarantee equal justice for all in their private disputes;

and as for the election of public officials, we welcome talent to every arena of achievement, nor do we make out choices on the grounds of class but on the grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We acknowledge the restraint of reverence;

we are obedient to those in authority and to the laws, especially to those that give protection to the oppressed and those unwritten laws of the heart whose transgression brings admitted shame.”

“We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without effeminacy.

We differ from other states in regarding the man who keeps aloof from public life not as “private” but as useless; we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, and we hold, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed.”

In a word, I say our city as a whole is an education to Greece, and that our citizens yield to none, man by man, for independence of spirit, many-sidedness of attainment, and complete self-reliance in limbs and brain.

Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today. We need no Homer or other man of words to praise us”.

“For you now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onslaught”.

Australia, education, Indonesia, Personal comment

What do we do about the decline of Bahasa #Indonesia in #Australia?

Yesterday I listened to an interview with Dr Jane Orton, the director of Melbourne University’s Chinese Teacher Training Centre.

She made two critical and obvious points.  First, education is a state matter and as a nation we would benefit from a national languages curriculum.  Secondly, she explained that the top results in studies of Chinese language in Australia go to those who already speak a Chinese language.  Non-Chinese background students are opting out of the system.  This in itself isn’t a major problem as we are still producing competent Chinese language speakers. There is however a failure to engage and retain students of non-native speaker background in continuing studies of Chinese.

Of course there are wider problems with the teaching of Asian languages in Australia.  We can gain some insight into the popularity of Asian languages by examining enrolments in higher education institutions.  Enrolments in Asian language programs conducted by Australian institutions of higher education have been studied in surveys initiated by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA), since 2001.  In their latest report Asian Languages Enrolments in Australian Higher Education 2008-9 Report commissioned by the Asian Studies Association of Australia, author A/Prof Anne McLaren, from the University of Melbourne, emphasised that:

  • New programs have opened up in Chinese, and enrolments are up by about a third since 2001 but most new learners are of Asian background.
  • Numbers in Indonesian have fallen dramatically since the early 2000s and a number of providers have terminated progams in Indonesian.
  • Japanese has seen a modest increase in enrolments since 2001 and continues to have by far the largest number of enrolments of any Asian language.
  • Enrolments in Arabic have more than doubled since 2001 from a small base.
  • Korean and Vietnamese enrolments have grown quite strongly since the early 2000s but are offered in very few institutions.

The demise of Indonesian Language
Australia’s connection with Indonesia stretches back to the dawn of human settlement in the region.  Trade between Nusantara and Aboriginal nations was well established before the colonial period.  To traders from the north the Kimberley was known as Kayu Jawa and Arnhemland as Marege. Denise Russell from the University of Wollongong has published a short but comprehensive account of these connections in her online paper Aboriginal–Makassan interactions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in northern Australia and contemporary sea rights claims.  She shows the extent of the trade with this useful map.

From Denise Russell's online paper at

Given this extensive history, the Indonesian language has long been of particular interest to me.  Over the period 1984 to 2002 I travelled there many times as a field study centre manager, tourism product developer, location manager for film and television, consultant to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, market researcher and tourist.  These visits took me to 14 provinces from remote parts of West Papua, Kalimantan and the Mentawai islands, to Diplomatic and Ministerial meetings in Jakarta.  After a break following the first Bali Bombings of October, 2002, I’ve resumed regular travel to Indonesia.  My most recent trip was in January 2011, as readers of this blog will already know.

While I was back in Sydney, working on other projects in 2004 it was with more than passing interest that I read Louise Williams’ article, “We must learn more of our neighbour“  published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s September 11-12 weekend edition. She was most thorough in exploring Indonesia’s broad importance to Australia.  She correctly observed that the collapse in high school Indonesian-language enrolments was flowing on to universities.  Her excellent article moved me to write a letter to the editor stressing that, “The result is a deteriorating capacity to produce graduates equipped with the skills needed to sustain an effective engagement with our neighbour.”

I argued that the Australian Government needed to be far more active in rekindling and fostering the tools and understanding necessary to engage with this complex emergent democracy. A renewed commitment to Indonesian-language education was needed and could prove to be one highly effective strategy in combating the forces of extremism that sought to challenge and destabilise democratic processes in this region.

What I had in mind was that fluency in a language helped ensure an informed and mature understanding of developments along the archipelago, rather than monochromatic responses, based on ignorance that filtered out the histories, archipelagic inter-connectedness, subtleties, complexities and essentially secular nature of our large neighbour.

Watching The Year of Living Dangerously again the other day, I was reminded just how far the world and Indonesia has come, since those Cold War inscribed days. Yet amongst many Australians I still encounter basic fears of Indonesia, a low level paranoia in which it’s no longer the Communists or the militarists in Indonesia that are to be feared, but rather Islamist extremists.  This lack of capacity to view our neighbour accurately, through contemporary lenses, can be observed across the bilateral relationship.

I’m not certain what the role of this sub current is in Australian society and politics but I suspect it plays a role in the declining popularity of Indonesian studies, despite the renewed popularity of Bali as a tourist destination.

According to the ASAA report Indonesian was taught in 18 institutions of higher education in 2009, two less than listed in the 2008 report. The report goes on to observe that a number of institutions have ceased teaching Indonesian since the 2000s (Sunshine Coast, Wollongong, Curtin) or have minimal enrolments (UWS). It notes a decline in Indonesian enrolments of 12% in equivalent full-time load (EFTSL) from 2001 to 2005 with this trend continuing into the most recent survey period.

Amongst the 24 responding institutions in 2009, there was a total decline in enrolments from 324 EFTSL in 2001 to 220 in 2009, a fall of 32%.

Table 5 from the ASAA report is striking

Comparison of Chinese, Indonesian & Japanese total enrolments in EFTSU for 2001 and 2009 in 24 Australian universities.

We must invest to latch into the Asian Century
In response in part to the Federal Government’s announcement that former Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, is to coordinate the preparation of a white paper on “Australia in the Asian Century”, to be considered by full cabinet in early 2012, today’s Australian carries an excellent article by Bernard Lane. He skilfully traverses the present problem quoting from the University of Melbourne’s Asian law expert Tim Lindsey who explains that:

Engagement with Asia requires skills.  This would seem to be self-evident but doesn’t seem to be recognised in government policy or the community.

Lane goes on to cite a 2010 Asia Education Foundation report which warned that:

On Current trends, Indonesian could be virtually extinct in language studies at Year 12 level by 2020. 

The same report underscore the fact that Indonesian is at crisis point, with Year 12 enrolments halved since 2000 to just 1100 students nationally.

Lane maps out some of the approaches adopted towards Asian languages indicating that:

A 2007 election promise from Kevin Rudd, the $62.4 million National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (2008-12) aimed to double to 12 per cent the group of Year 12 students emerging with Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Korean by 2020. A month before Mr Rudd was removed as prime minister last year, he launched Asia Education Foundation reports showing reverses in Asian literacy at school that experts said NALSSP alone could not remedy.

Unfortunately at the end of June 2012 NALSSP runs out and without a commitment to continued funding for Asian languages, momentum will again be lost. Lane quotes  executive director of the Asia Education Foundation Kathe Kirby who says:

The money keeps on peaking and troughing, so you’re just building up momentum and expertise . . . and then the money falls away again

Ms Kirby observes that the Henry review can only make crystal clear the challenges ahead of us if we are going to equip our young people with the capabilities for the Asian century.

Looking on the bright side
The awarding of a National Teaching Fellowship to Prof David Hill from Murdoch University, by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, is some cause for optimism. as a first step Prof Hill has comprehensively described the problem of declining Indonesian language capacity.  His, however, task is to develop a national strategic plan for the advancement of Indonesian language in Australian universities.

In a discussion paper that he presented in February this year he quotes Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from an address to the Australian Parliament in 2010:

I know of no other Western country where Bahasa Indonesia is widely taught in the school curriculum. I know of no other Western country with more Indonesianists in your governments, universities and think tanks.

While this is high praise from the President, Prof Hill observes, in part also quoting Australian Indonesianist Prof Jamie Mackie, that. . . as the pioneering generation of Indonesianist scholars – so praised by President Yudhoyono — retires, it is becoming clear that we are “living on past capital, in an area where new blood is crucial”.

The project has compiled an extensive media dossier on the matter of Asian languages in Australia which can be accessed here.  With initiative like this underway there is some basis for optimism.

I think in all of this discussion the the long term challenge is one of consistent policy settings and funding continuity. In the end the responsibility must remain with the Federal Government.