Chris Bowen says Coalition must address Alexander Downer's comments on Indonesia's asylum seeker stance

Updated September 27, 2013 10:10:18

Chris Bowen joins Lateline Video: Chris Bowen joins Lateline (Lateline)

Acting Labor leader Chris Bowen says the Coalition must "come out of hiding" to address former foreign minister Alexander Downer's blunt rebuke of Indonesia's stance on asylum seekers.

Mr Downer directly addressed Indonesia's foreign minister Marty Natalegawa on ABC television last night, saying Indonesian crews are breaching Australian sovereignty and he should not be "taking shots" at the Coalition.

The comments came after Dr Natalegawa made the rare move of releasing the details of a private meeting he had with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York.

The release said the foreign ministers discussed the Coalition's plans to turn back asylum boats, and also noted that Australia wanted to work on the issue "behind the scenes" and "quietly".

Diplomatic row brewing

Alexander Downer's rejection of Marty Natalagawa's comments is significant because he was a minister in the former Coalition government, writes Asia editor Catherine McGrath.

It also warned Australia's plans to turn back asylum seeker boats could jeopardise trust and cooperation between the two countries.

The unusual move to release the statement is further evidence the Indonesian government, who says it will reject the Coalition's Operation Sovereign Borders policy, is unhappy with the Government.

Mr Downer called on Indonesia to stop what he labelled "pious rhetoric" and rejected the claim that turning back boats may infringe on their sovereignty.

He told The Drum that Indonesia has a heavy responsibility to bear in helping Australia deal with asylum seekers.

"Let me make this point for Mr Natalegawa's benefit: Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters," he said.

"This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian Government breaching their sovereignty."

Turning back boats will create conflict, Indonesian adviser says

Audio: Downer accuses Indonesia of 'pious rhetoric' (AM)

Mr Downer's comments come as a senior Indonesian government advisor warned that turning back boats would create conflict between Australia and Indonesia.

Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior advisor to the Indonesia's vice-president, says an incident could be provoked if the Australian Navy turned a boat back to Indonesia.

"I think it will create unnecessary conflict," she told RN Breakfast.

"I can just imagine the Indonesian navy will not take kindly to that, so let's not be hypothetical about it.

"Any act by a foreign navy that infringes on a neighbouring country's territorial waters, as you know, could cause incidents at sea.

"Clearly, that is not in the spirit of the framework of strategic cooperation that Australia and Indonesia have already signed."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott will due to travel to Indonesia next Monday for talks with the Indonesian government.

Mr Bowen told Lateline that Mr Downer's comments may be seen as reflecting the Coalition's stance, and the Government must either endorse or repudiate them.

"This matches the rhetoric we heard from then leader of the opposition Abbott when he says these are Indonesian-flagged vessels disgorging people in Australian waters," he said.

"It's simply not good enough now for the Prime Minister and Minister Bishop and Minister [Scott] Morrison to remain in hiding about this issue."

Natalegawa trying to make message 'crystal clear'

Mr Bowen says Dr Natalegawa's decision to release details of his meeting with Ms Bishop is a sign he is not pleased with the Coalition.

"I can only assume that he is saying that he needs to make it crystal clear, given that he feels the message is not getting through to the Australian Government, about how strongly the Indonesian government feels about this," he said.

"And he's not impressed by the characterisation of this being a minor issue which could be worked through.

"This is not an irritant to the Indonesian government; this is a clear matter of principle for them."

Mr Morrison is currently in Papua New Guinea ahead of a visit to the asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island.

Meanwhile, 70 asylum seekers have been rescued by an Australian Navy ship off the Indonesian island of Java.

An official with Indonesia's search and rescue agency says the boat got into trouble 40 nautical miles out to sea.

Those onboard will be brought back to Indonesia, where they will be dealt with by Immigration Authorities and the International Organisation for Migration.

Topics: refugees, immigration, community-and-society, foreign-affairs, government-and-politics, australia, indonesia

First posted September 27, 2013 00:37:02