Australia's asylum seeker policy putting relationship with Indonesia at risk

George Roberts reported this story on Thursday, September 26, 2013 18:14:00

MARK COLVIN: Indonesia is making it clearer by the day that it's not happy with Australia's asylum seeker policy.

The Indonesian foreign ministry has released details about the minister Marty Natalegawa's discussions with Australia's Julie Bishop in New York. The release reveals Indonesia's concern that Australia could be risking the trust and co-operation between the two countries.

Indonesia correspondent George Roberts joins us from Jakarta. This has been something of a crescendo, George. It started with a whisper and it's rising to a roar.

GEORGE ROBERTS: That's right, and it's very interesting that this statement has been put out by the foreign ministry here in Jakarta, written in Bahasa Indonesia - the language of Indonesia, I should say - but also, you know, detailing what happened in that meeting, what was said by Julie Bishop and also what was said by the foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa.

It confirms that Australia still wants to push ahead with the towing back the boats operation and that Australia's hoping for Indonesia's support in preventing fishing boats with Indonesian flags ending up being used for asylum seekers to get to Australia. It also says that Tony Abbott has appointed a special envoy to assist Indonesia in handling the operation and technical issues around the operation.

So it certainly, I guess, reveals what was said in that meeting. It also says that Australia wants to work behind the scenes and quietly on the issue with Indonesia to prevent too much publicity and any negative impacts that might have.

MARK COLVIN: That doesn't seem to be happening.

GEORGE ROBERTS: No, it certainly doesn't, and especially when you put out a press release detailing, you know, what they're hoping to achieve. And obviously, I mean the main thing about this press release is that it also states that the foreign minister has warned that unilateral measures taken by Australia could potentially risk the tight co-operation and trust between the two countries, so - and says that this should be avoided.

MARK COLVIN: What kind of things might that involve, do you think, George? Obviously we've got strong co-operation between the AFP - a lot of people remember that after Bali - between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian police.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Yeah, well it certainly points to diplomatic tension and reluctance to help out. Obviously Australia needs Indonesia's help if it's going to tackle people smuggling and it has certainly got help to a certain degree through the people smuggling task force here, a division of the national police that have effected a number of arrests and, you know, locked up a number of people smugglers, obviously not all of them.

And so you would think that it could potentially risk that kind of co-operation when people smuggling and asylum seekers isn't a big issue in Indonesia. It's not something that Indonesians are particularly concerned about.

To point out that as well, the foreign minister actually states in this press release that Australia and Indonesia need to take stock in order to identify common interests and that both countries need to basically take a joint approach to this, so it's almost like going back to square one and starting again.

MARK COLVIN: And very briefly, just to put this in a historical perspective, Indonesia is normally much more circumspect than this, isn't it, in diplomacy?

GEORGE ROBERTS: Absolutely, yes, and even in recent history the foreign minister has been very reluctant to speak openly and has been very diplomatic about it. So this kind of language is quite strong and quite interesting indeed.

MARK COLVIN: George Roberts, our Jakarta correspondent, thank you


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