James Massola, Jakarta – Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan, has let fly with a withering assessment of Australia's national capital, describing Canberra as "one of the biggest national mistakes we ever made".
The veteran diplomat made the undiplomatic comments during a Q&A session at the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, in response to a question about Indonesia's ambitious plan to move its capital from Jakarta to the island of Kalimantan.
Mr Quinlan also sounded a note of caution over whether Australia would need to re-think its intelligence sharing arrangements with Indonesia if Chinese telco giant Huawei is heavily involved in the construction of the country's 5G mobile phone network, declaring "we'll only know that when we know it".
And the ambassador warned the Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement, which was ratified by Australia's parliament on Wednesday and was due to be ratified by Indonesia's parliament by the end of the year, would not be a "magic bullet, but it can be a catalyst" for greater trade and investment between the two nations.
Mr Quinlan's began his comments about Canberra by revealing that information had been exchanged between Australia and Indonesia about how to construct a planned capital city, particularly focused on "where we think we might have failed".
"Because the evolution of Canberra – and I'm not a fan of Canberra, never have been, I think it's one of the biggest national mistakes we ever made, but anyway that's neither here nor there, now that I've got that off my chest – but there is a lot of exchange of that information which is beginning," he said.
One of the lessons Indonesia could learn from Canberra, he said, was that it was too spread out in the early days and "had no natural centre".
The Ambassador also noted that President Joko Widodo, who is driving the move, had set a "very quick" timetable for construction – work is due to begin in 2020, and public servants are to begin moving there by 2024 – but "Australia will be where the capital is".
Indonesia is home to Australia's largest diplomatic mission in the world and, Mr Quinlan said, staff had already begin to think about which diplomats would move to the as-yet unnamed new city and who would remain in the relatively new, half-a-billion dollar embassy in the commercial capital of Jakarta.
On China, Mr Quinlan – who has also served as Australia's most senior representative at the United Nations and to Singapore – said Australia was "quite concerned" about some of its behaviour, citing its militarisation of the South China Sea.
"We think that's wrong and we believe they should be held to account by countries pointing this out and sticking by the agreed rules of the law of the sea," he said.
Australia and the United States have banned Huawei's 5G equipment from their next generation mobile networks because of security concerns but many countries in south-east Asia, including Indonesia, look set to make use of the company's technology.
"We do talk to Indonesia candidly, behind closed doors, about all these kinds of security issues affecting the region or affecting the globe," he said, adding that Australia was particularly concerned about cyber security.
Asked directly about Huawei's involvement, Mr Quinlan said "it's something obviously all countries who have a view about wanting to maintain the integrity and security of their information, if they're exchanging very sensitive information, will make a whole series of judgments about in respect of the trust they think can be given to new technology and communication."
During his speech Mr Quinlan also highlighted that Australia and Indonesia were only each other's 13th largest trading partners, despite their geographic proximity, and that many Australian businesses had given up on investing in Indonesia as "too hard".
The free trade deal could grow the economic partnership, he said, but the economic reforms President Joko was pursuing were also needed within Indonesia to reduce burdensome regulations – some of which contradicted each other.
Unless some of those regulations were pared back, "Australian business will not have the confidence to look again at the market