Tony Abbott's asylum seeker policies 'offensive', says senior Indonesian politician

September 19, 2013 - 9:54AM
Michael Bachelard
Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media

Another senior Indonesian politician has described Tony Abbott's asylum seeker policies as ''very offensive'' and an attack on his country’s sovereignty, adding that if they were not changed they would damage the bilateral relationship.

The comment by parliamentarian Tantowi Yahya is the latest in a series of slights to one of the Prime Minister’s signature policies, and Fairfax Media has confirmed antipathy to it exists across Indonesia’s political spectrum.

Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya told Lateline's Tony Jones that the Australian government's policies on asylum seekers will damage bilateral relations between the countries.

Mr Abbott will visit Jakarta on September 30 with Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to explain his policies to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Mr Abbott has also reportedly asked Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, to return from Jakarta to brief the National Security Committee of cabinet on the issue of asylum seekers.

Ms Bishop has already outlined a hard-nosed approach to those talks, saying last week: ''We're not seeking Indonesia's permission . . . we're seeking their understanding.''

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop are not after permission from Indonesia to implement Operation Sovereign Borders but rather mutual understanding.

Mr Tantowi is a member of the Indonesian parliament's ''Commission I'', responsible for foreign affairs. He told the ABC's Lateline program on Wednesday that there were no circumstances under which Indonesia would accept Mr Abbott’s boat tow-back policy.

''No, we don't agree with that. This is, I can say, something like a consensus between the government and the parliament not to agree with the plan which is now being projected by the new Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott,'' Mr Tantowi said.

The policy ''annoys our sovereignty as an independent country''. Photos released from Customs show the doomed asylum seeker boat that capsized in June this year killing all on board. Thirteen bodies were spotted but never recovered.

''I think the policy will be very offensive and we in the parliaments fully support what was said by our foreign ministers, that we will fully reject the policy,'' Mr Tantowi said.

Mr Tantowi is a member of the Golkar Party and is part of Mr Yudhoyono's governing coalition.

But Fairfax Media has confirmed that Mr Abbott's plan is unpopular in the executive, the parliament and through the bureaucracy.

A senior Indonesian political source said on condition of anonymity that the problem was not just with the tow-back policy, but with other aspects of Mr Abbott's plan.

''It's against our interests if other countries conduct activities which breach our sovereignty, such as, I can say it very clearly, the idea of buying boats and of intelligence gathering [in villages]. All those kinds of activities, I think wouldn't be consistent with Indonesia’s sovereignty,'' the source said.

''To pay people for information, it would not be considered wise. Can you imagine if we paid someone in Australia for information on pro-Papua separatism? I think it would raise eyebrows on your side. I think this is something that's not advisable.''

Indonesia has been consistent in its message that it wants solutions to Australia's asylum seeker problem that are multilateral, not unilateral.

And Mr Abbott has consistently said the relationship with Indonesia is the most important in the region and that he would run a foreign policy with a ''Jakarta, not a Geneva'' focus.

However, senior voices in the Liberal Party have been pushing Mr Abbott to take a hard line in talks with Indonesia on asylum seekers.

Former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer wrote recently that, under John Howard, ''never, never, ever did we ask another country's permission to protect our borders''.

''No self-respecting government would do that. Ever.''


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