UK PM David Cameron (left) takes a selfie with Indonesia pop star Maudy Ayunda  (centre).

UK PM David Cameron (left) takes a selfie with Indonesia pop star Maudy Ayunda (centre).

It’s time to try fresh ideas and new tools when it comes to Australia-Indonesia relations. How about a selfie?

The Australian-Indonesian relationship is in the pits. That’s widely agreed. Now – where to from here?

Aside from the moral need to live in peace with the neighbours, public servant Peter Varghese has listed reasons for repair in a speech at the Australian National University marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s Indonesia Project.

Unfortunately the DFAT secretary offered few new tools or resources to do the job and sailed past awkward facts. He wants business and citizens to supply ‘the ballast [the relationship] needs to cope with momentary political crises or differences in policy’.

A favourite image among diplomats, ‘ballast’ is both inappropriate and aged, dating back to 1988 according to Griffith University Professor Colin Brown.

Ballast is inert – it has no value other than keeping a craft upright. It can’t determine direction. Sinking vessels ditch ballast first. ‘Compass’ provides a better metaphor.

Seeing the turbulence the relationship has encountered under DFAT’s captaincy of ‘20 federal agencies cooperating with Indonesian counterparts in more than 60 discrete activities’ maybe it’s time to set a new course away from the ‘economic diplomacy’ followed so far.

One direction could be sport, an area where we excel and Indonesians, for all their enthusiasm and ability, flounder. Another is entertainment.

The Indonesian industry is huge, but quality poor. With almost half the population under 25 we need to understand the value of popular culture to connect – something not easily done by diplomats with serious agendas and countenances to match.

Korean business is getting into the Archipelago led by its K-pop musicians and film stars. Exchange programs for elite scholars are fine, but it’s the mood of the masyarakat, the masses, that shape Indonesian politics.

Why do Australians rank Indonesia alongside Russia on Lowy Institute’s ‘feelings thermometer’? Don’t blame the media for highlighting incompetence and extremists, but successive governments that have failed to help balance with well-funded Indonesian language and culture studies in schools and universities.

This is a two way street; respect will return if and when President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo implements his promises to make his nation a clean, modern and moderate state.

In his speech at ANU Varghese highlighted Indonesia’s advances into democracy, more stable than Thailand’s, more transparent than Malaysia’s, and far livelier than Singapore’s.

But it’s still a work in progress, fragile and threatened by oligarchs more interested in power than policy. Last year the parliament tried to kill direct local government elections. US democracy advocate Freedom House has scored Indonesia as ‘partly free’.

Another theme has Indonesia as a growing economic giant soon to dwarf Australia. We’ve heard this wake-up call before, but hard-nosed business people seeking stability and certainty rank facts above rhetoric. Which is why we do more business with tiny Singapore and distant New Zealand.

The World Bank definition of ‘middle class’ (what Varghese also curiously calls ‘consumer class’ as though others don’t shop and eat) is a household with an annual disposable income above US$ 3,000; the figure less quoted by business boosters relates to those living below US$ 730 a year; that’s the sum earned by about half the population of 250 million.

Economic progress is shackled by appalling transport systems, narrow damaged roads and crowded hubs. The World Economic Forum ranks Indonesia at 62 for the quality of its infrastructure; Singapore is at five and Malaysia 25. Administration systems are decades behind international standards. Inflation is well above seven per cent.

Corruption has been tackled piecemeal at the big end of town but continues to strangle the Republic’s public service.

Fair application of the rule of law, essential for investors and locals alike, remains elusive. Although Indonesia celebrates 70 years of independence this month the legal system remains largely based on Dutch law.

A peaceful and prosperous Indonesia is in everyone’s interests. These hazards illustrate the need to recognise the complexities and get the relationship right. Neither we nor they have been successful so far. President Jokowi seems indifferent to his southern neighbour, while PM Tony Abbott hasn’t endeared with megaphone diplomacy from afar.

Meanwhile his British counterpart has been up close and personal. When David Cameron was in Jakarta last month he huddled down in sealed rooms with men in suits to talk trade

Then he entertained by taking a blusukan [street walkabout]. He shared a pisang goreng [fried banana] plus a selfie with 20-year-old popstar Maudy Ayunda (who’s also a student at Oxford) and reaped positive publicity as a fun guy.

Now that’s putting ballast into international relations.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham ( lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.