Abbott Risks It All To Stop The Boats

By Ben Eltham
New Matilda
19 September 2013

As the warnings from Jakarta get louder, Tony Abbott has shown he is prepared to scuttle Australia's relationship with Indonesia for cheap domestic politics, writes Ben Eltham

At what point does the Coalition’s obsession with “stopping the boats” collide with Australia’s national interest?

If you think the Indonesian relationship is Australia’s most important foreign policy priority, that point is now.

Australia’s northern neighbour is a sprawling and diverse democracy. It is also, compared with the minerals-rich continent to its south, relatively poor. Politics in Indonesia is dominated by domestic issues such as corruption and the state of the economy. A few thousand asylum-seekers moving through Java on the way to Australia has not been a particularly big issue.

According to Antje Missbach from the University of Melbourne, who has just spent ten months researching Indonesian legal responses to the issues, “people smuggling, asylum seeker issues in Indonesia, they are not a big deal.”

“If you normally read the news there, they are not even among the top ten list of priorities … It’s a bit of a side issue actually,” she told the ABC’s Damien Carrick this week. “For Australians, it’s very important to recognise that although it might be the most important topic here for the time being, it’s not for the Indonesians.”

The actions of the new Abbott Government could change that. Australia’s newly assertive approach to the multilateral problem of transnational migration is starting to have a serious impact on our bilateral relationship with Indonesia. That’s exceedingly bad news for Australia, because a good relationship with Indonesia is our most important foreign policy priority.

How do we know this? Because the Indonesians are telling us. You may not have noticed it if you read the Daily Telegraph, but Indonesia is starting to tire of the Coalition’s rhetoric on asylum seekers. Understandably, many in Indonesia’s government and parliament see it as meddling in Indonesia’s domestic affairs.

The warnings have been coming regularly for months now. In May, Indonesia's Ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, warned the Coalition that Indonesia would not agree to the policy. “Indonesia is a target country and we are also the victim of this situation so I think it's not possible for the Coalition to say it has to go to Indonesia - back to Indonesia because Indonesia is not the origin country of these people,” Kesoema said. “We don't know the situation ahead of us right now but I think ... no such collaboration will happen ... between Indonesia and Australia.”

During the election campaign, Mahfudz Siddiq, the head of Indonesia's parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission, warned of the implications of the Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders. “It's an unfriendly idea coming from a candidate who wants to be Australian leader,” Siddiq told AAP in July. “That idea shows how he sees things … Don't look at us, Indonesia, like we want this people smuggling."

“This is really a crazy idea, unfriendly, derogatory and it shows lack of understanding in this matter.”

Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has also consistently warned Australia against towing back boats into Indonesian waters. “We will have a discussion with Abbott prior to the APEC Summit in October. We will reject his policy on asylum seekers and any other policy that harms the spirit of partnership," Natalegawa said last week, according to reports in the Jakarta Post.

Natalegawa has also rejected the Coalition’s election promise to buy boats off Indonesian people smugglers, in an effort to stop the flow of maritime arrivals. “But for sure we will reject policies not in line with the spirit of partnership and [Indonesian] sovereignty and national integrity,” he said last week.

Last night on the ABC’s Lateline, Indonesian MP and Foreign Affairs Commission member Tantowi Yahya was equally blunt. Indonesia does not support turning back the boats, he told Tony Jones. “This is 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,” he said. “It’s illegal.”

Australian radio shock jocks may dismiss such sentiments, but Yahwa’s remarks have a sound basis in international law. The legality of turning back boats has always been questionable. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, boarding or taking under tow a vessel in international waters without the permission of the captain is, under some circumstances, piracy.

This has long been known. Indeed, a former Royal Australian Navy admiral, Chris Barrie, warned of this back in May.

Ben Saul, a Professor of international law at the University of Sydney, also questions the legality of turning back boats. “It is not legal to turn back a boat which is unseaworthy and on which the lives of passengers are in danger or at risk,” he wrote in The Conversation in July. “Australia has no right to board and search foreign vessels on the high seas, so Australia’s power to turn back boats is really confined in most cases to boats which are already in Australian territorial waters.”

“Illegal”, “derogatory”, a “policy that harms the spirit of partnership”, a policy Indonesia will “will reject”: these are the things Indonesian leaders, former admirals and legal experts are saying about Tony Abbott’s obsession with turning back boats.

The Coalition refuses to listen. Even before she was sworn in as Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop gave an interview to Sky News in which she claimed Australia would not need to “seek permission” to implement the new hardline policy. “What we have in place is a series of policies that we intend to implement by legislation and operationally, and they will not breach Indonesia's sovereignty,” she told Sky. “We're not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding.”

This is madness. Australia is risking a critical relationship with a good neighbour for no other reason than cheap domestic politics. Operation Sovereign Borders is dangerous, potentially illegal, and obviously offensive to our key partner in the region. Something tells me that won’t stop the Abbott government from playing the wedge politics of asylum seekers. The Abbott government appears entirely willing to damage Australia’s national interests for the sake of “stopping the boats”.


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