Australian PM insists no argument with Indonesia

SYDNEY (AFP) Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday said he was confident his government could work with Indonesia despite a senior Jakarta official calling his controversial asylum-seeker policy “offensive”.

Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya, a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs commission, said there were “major concerns” that the policy would interfere with his country’s sovereignty.

His comments echoed sentiments expressed recently by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who said Jakarta would rebuff Abbott’s plans to tow back boats in a military response titled Operation Sovereign Borders.

Under the scheme, Abbott also plans to embed Australian police in Indonesian villages, buy up fishing boats to keep them from people-smugglers and pay locals for intelligence.

“I think the policy will be very offensive and we in the parliament fully support what was said by our foreign minister — that we will fully reject the policy,” Yahya told ABC television late Wednesday.

The divisive issue of halting asylum-seeker boats that typically originate in Indonesia loomed large in Australia’s recent election race and Abbott’s pledge to “Stop the Boats” was a central plank of his campaign.

Yahya said towing boats back was “illegal” and implementing the policy as it stands would strain ties.

“It will obviously damage our relationship,” he said, adding Jakarta only learned details of the plan “from the newspapers”.

“We have to work together. The platform is cooperation,” he said, adding that one country should not become “the police”.

Abbott, who was sworn in as Australia’s new prime minister on Wednesday, said he would not “conduct discussions with Indonesia through the media”.

“Too much damage has been done in the past through megaphone diplomacy and it is never going to happen under this government.”

But the conservative added: “I have no argument with anyone in the Indonesian establishment.

“Indonesia is a robust democracy, as Australia is. There are many voices in Indonesia but I am very confident that this government will be able to work effectively with the Indonesia government as former coalition governments have done.”

On Monday, new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would talk with Natalegawa about the issue at a UN meeting in New York this weekend, insisting the policy would not breach Indonesia’s sovereignty.

“We’re not asking for Indonesia’s permission, we’re asking for their understanding,” she said.
Abbott is expected to visit Jakarta in the coming fortnight. Australia has struggled to manage the stream of asylum-seekers arriving on rickety, overloaded fishing boats with hundreds dying on the risky journey in recent years.

As well as Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, the new government has said it plans to stand by the former Labor administration’s policy of sending any boatpeople arrivals to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing and resettlement.