Downer accuses Indonesia of 'pious rhetoric'

Samantha Hawley reported this story on Friday, September 27, 2013 08:00:00

TIM PALMER: Three days before Tony Abbott's first visit as Prime Minister as he'd promised to Jakarta, Indonesia's simmering dislike for his turn back the boats policy is threatening to make the visit increasingly uncomfortable.

The latest addition to diplomatic tensions: a warning by Indonesia's foreign minister that unilateral action by Australia threatens the entire cooperative agreement between the countries on asylum seekers.

That emerged when the foreign minister Marty Natalegawa took the unusual step of releasing a lengthy document detailing his private meeting with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in New York earlier this week.

And the former foreign minister from Australia, Alexander Downer, has fuelled the row, accusing Indonesia of "pious rhetoric".

From Canberra, Samantha Hawley reports.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Alexander Downer has describes the Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa as a good friend but it didn't stop this spray.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian Government threatening their sovereignty, their people, their boats, their crews are breaching our sovereignty.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: For this former foreign minister diplomacy has gone out the window. Mr Downer says foreign minister Natalegawa has travelled down the wrong path in his criticism of the Coalition Government's policy to turn back asylum seeker boats.

On ABC 24s the Drum, Mr Downer didn't hold back.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Let me make this point for Mr Natalegawa's benefit. Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters. This is a breach of our sovereignty.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Dr Natalegawa met the new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York this week.

In an unusual move he later disclosed the discussion in a media release, indicating unilateral measures taken by Australia could potentially risk Indonesia's sovereignty and the bilateral relationship.

The acting Labor Leader Chris Bowen on Lateline:

CHRIS BOWEN: Such an extraordinary development, such an unprecedented step by an Indonesian foreign minister. I can't recall an Indonesian foreign minister taking a step like this in relation to Australia ever before. It underlines the seriousness of Indonesia's approach. It underlines what a threat this is to an important bilateral relationship. And it underlines the threat that it is to daily cooperation.

It's a matter for this Government now to clear this up, to either repudiate Mr Downer's comments or to endorse them.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: The diplomatic tension over the asylum seeker policy has been simmering away for months.

Ross Taylor is the chair the West Australian-based Indonesia Institute.

ROSS TAYLOR: It's an issue that Indonesia and their president and their foreign minister take very seriously.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: And Alexander Downer's entry into the debate won't help ahead of Mr Abbott's first overseas visit as Prime Minister.

ROSS TAYLOR: It's the beginning of a new relationship and it's also a relationship which next year, after the Indonesian elections, which is going to have to be renewed again. So we are very much in a transition stage.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: The Prime Minister's office nominates trade as the dominant issue to be discussed between the two leaders.

ROSS TAYLOR: But unfortunately the oxygen will once again be sucked out of that as we get engrossed in the people smuggling issue.

SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Mr Abbott will touch down in Jakarta on Monday afternoon.

TIM PALMER: Samantha Hawley reporting.


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