Prime Minister Menzies’ visit to Indonesia

Robert Gordon Menzies was the first prime minister of Australia to visit Indonesia. This may come as a surprise to those who follow the conventional view in Australian-Indonesian relations that it was Labor governments that always had the best relations with Indonesia. This article is one of several from the first week of December 1959 reporting on Menzies’ visit (https://omaa-arts.sydney.edu.au/texts/1829/). There is also extensive documentation in the National Archives of Australia https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3373596

The reports show Menzies chatting amiably with President Sukarno, and emphasise Australian aid to Indonesia through the Colombo Plan, which saw Indonesians gain tertiary education in Australia.

Menzies’ visit was the first by an Australian leader after the Governor General of Australia’s trip in 1938 https://omaa-arts.sydney.edu.au/images/1659/. Menzies’ fellow Liberal Party leader, Prime Minister John Gorton, visited Indonesia in 1968. Liberal Party foreign ministers made numerous trips to Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s, while Sukarno’s Foreign Minister, Subandrio, visited Australia in February 1959.

All the newspaper reports were very positive, which is remarkable given that this was during the early part of Sukarno’s Guided Democracy period, when Indonesia’s assertive policy in the region led to its takeover of West New Guinea (referred to as Irian Barat by the Indonesians) and eventually to ‘Konfrontasi’, the conflict over the formation of Malaysia. The 1959 visits by Subandrio and Menzies smoothed the way for the Indonesian takeover of Irian, by ensuring that Australia would not take the side of the Dutch. During Konfrontasi, Australian and Indonesian troops were secretly involved in armed conflict on the borders of Sarawak. Indonesian reports of the period present Britain as an imperialist force in the region, but Australia was largely seen as neutral, if not friendly.