A tow-them-backflip? No, just more angry pollies
Tony Abbott’s apparent timidity over promoting his own asylum seeker policy to the Indonesians might seem pretty irrelevant, but it has appeared as front page news. And that is because it is indeed important now, if it wasn’t initially. Supporters and opponents of the Opposition Leader have become excited by it.
Let’s not be confused: Tony Abbott did not raise or discuss his tow-back-the-boats policy with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when they met in Jakarta two nights ago.
The Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says it wasn’t discussed at that meeting; the Australian shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison says it wasn’t discussed at that meeting. Suggestions otherwise are simply not true. Anonymous sources were not needed to clear up the matter.
The specific policy was discuss later during talks between Mr Morrison and shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop, and Mr Natalegawa.
This is not a jarring allocation of topics on a first visit to Jakarta to meet the president. First comes the overview, then the detail at a subsequent meeting.
However, it has become a political issue because of critical elements of current debate.
Mr Abbott, in a speech before his half-hour of talks with President Yudhoyono, said asylum seekers were a first order economic and security issue for Australia.
“Over the past four years, border protection blowouts have cost almost $5 billion. The increased humanitarian intake that the government has announced to help cope with people smuggling will cost an extra $1.3 billion,” he told a business luncheon.
“As things stand, Australia has partially sub-contracted its immigration program to people smugglers. That’s why stopping the boats is so important and why the next Coalition government won’t rest until our borders are secure once more.”
With an issue that important, it might have seen likely that Mr Abbott would go over an itemised policy response when talking to the president, particularly as it was known the Indonesians had problems with the two-them-back tactic.
A counter argument is that President Yudhoyono didn’t mention the policy either, despite his country’s misgivings. So maybe it was a tacit agreement to agree to disagree.
But the question remains: Why didn’t Mr Abbott use his chance to explain and justify the policy. He might not meet the president again until after the elections scheduled for late next year.
The issue became important because Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen used it as an opportunity to re-start name calling. Ms Gillard said Mr Abbott was a coward; Mr Bowen said he was a lion in Canberra and a mouse in Jakarta.
This sharp response made clear that the angry tone set on politics over the past two weeks has not been abandoned and the personalised nature of political debate has not been supplanted.
It is still a tough game and probably will stay that way through the election campaign.
Another question is at play: Just how close is the Opposition to Indonesia?
Liberal sources report that President Yudhoyono warmly recalls his relationship with John Howard and that Mr Abbott is seen as part of a continuum. The President would like to take up things where they were left off in 2007.
It is difficult to imagine John Howard, under current circumstances, robustly pushing at home a policy he knew was rousing hostility in Jakarta. If that was the case, he would want to sort out the issue first and not leave it hanging.
Tony Abbott has left tow-them-back as an unresolved matter which will force its way into every engagement he has with the Indonesians until they accept the policy or he drops it. It’s not a good start to what he hopes will be a beautiful friendship.
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