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Reader riposte: Bali belly trumps terrorism

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COMMENTS

2 June 2008 16:12

Following two recent posts on The Interpreter calling for Australia's travel advisory for Indonesia to be revised, Peter McCawley writes (my thoughts follow):

The Australian Government travel advice on the DFAT web site warns Australians against visiting Indonesia. The warning is unhelpful in various ways.

First, the advice is misleading. It gives far too much emphasis to terrorist-related risks. In fact, other risks are far more real. The risk of disease in Indonesia is high. In many developing countries the tuberculosis virus is widespread (over 80% of people have the virus in the Philippines). Further, water quality is generally poor. Every time an Australian  drinks water in any developing country, he or she is taking a big risk.  Travel of all kinds is also often dangerous: serious traffic accidents are common; passenger boats regularly sink; planes crash (as in Yogyakarta last year). Thus the 'ambient level of risk' in Indonesia and in many other poor countries is high. But the DFAT website hardly mentions these risks.

Second, the travel warnings impose severe economic costs. These costs hit ordinary people as well as business in both countries. Some Indonesian commentators have correctly referred to the warnings as 'economic vandalism'. The warnings are an important NTB (non-tariff barrier) to trade. Australia's official position – repeated emphatically on dozens (probably hundreds) of occasions at international meetings — is that free global trade is of the highest priority. In international meetings, Australian officials frequently urge other countries to remove their NTBs on international trade. Moreover, numerous Australian ministers have spoken enthusiastically of the importance of 'people to people' links between Australia and Indonesia. People-to-people links bring many benefits to both countries. But the travel warnings stifle these links! If the aim of the Australian Government was to curb business dealing between Australia and Indonesia, it is hard to think of a more effective way of doing so than to publish misleading travel warnings!

Although I'm sympathetic to Peter's concerns about free trade and I agree the risk of terrorism is overstated, the Government does have to go where the evidence takes it, no? In his earlier post, Stephen Grenville, citing the fact that the US has lowered it's Indonesia travel warning and we have not, suggested this difference could only be explained by us knowing something the Americans don't. Maybe. Or perhaps we have the same evidence but have reached different conclusions about what it means. Either way, it would surely be negligent to ignore that evidence or analysis and lower the travel warning anyway.

I think what Peter and Stephen are really questioning is the entire travel warning apparatus. But as long as the system is in place, we should not ask Government to manipulate it for trade or diplomatic reasons.

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