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May 3, 2012

Dog-whistle politics offends Indonesian ears

What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Julie Bishop outlined the opposition’s policy on "sending back" asylum seeker boats to Indonesia.

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Not since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister has the federal Coalition understood, much less had an engaged relationship with, south-east Asia. This lack of understanding and engagement was reflected again yesterday when the opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, made a “courtesy call” on the chair and deputy chair of Indonesia’s legislature (DPR).

What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Bishop outlined the opposition’s policy on “sending back” asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Indonesia’s DPR deputy chairman, Hajriyanto Tohari, described the policy as unfair on Indonesia and said that Bishop was arrogant in her expression of the policy.

Bishop admitted that the discussions in Indonesia had been robust. But, in keeping with the previously expressed view of Coalition leader Tony Abbott, Bishop said she was confident a Coalition government would work well with Indonesia. That does not, however, appear to be the view in Jakarta.

Australia’s policy on boat people, driven by a media panic over an unfounded sense of “invasion”, has never made sense in an era of high levels of unregulated population movement, mostly by plane. It certainly makes little sense in Jakarta.

As the main regional transit point for refugees, Indonesia sees the issue as distinctly regional and shared. Given most regional asylum seekers hope to come to Australia, Indonesia has long wanted to see a more humane policy on one hand and on the other a greater recognition of Indonesia carrying what it generally regards as an Australian — not an Indonesian — problem.

Bishop’s visit only highlighted to Indonesia Australia’s denial of its ownership of the issue and the Coalition’s intention to step even further away from any sense of shared responsibility. And, by “robustly” prosecuting the Coalition’s “send them back” policy, her visit has driven a wedge between the Indonesian administration and the Coalition.

Should there be a break-down in Australia’s sensitive arrangements with Indonesia on refugees, Indonesia could simply walk away from its current policy of trying to regulate the flow of people. That would open the boat-people flood-gates.

In opposition, Bishop’s visit to Indonesia identifies Australia’s alternative government as, at best, diplomatically inept. Should the opposition achieve government, however, as widely indicated by a succession of public opinion polls, such ineptitude will create critical problems in the bilateral relationship and, by extension, in Australia’s regional strategic and economic engagement.

International relations has always been, in large part, about playing to a domestic audience. But Bishop has just discovered that while “dog-whistle” politics might work in Australia, its shrill, isolationist call is internationally offensive.

Damien Kingsbury —

Damien Kingsbury

Crikey international affairs commentator

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13 thoughts on “Dog-whistle politics offends Indonesian ears

  1. Ken Lambert

    Professor Damien Kingsbury – inventor of the ‘bend over while the Indonesians boot our arses’ theory of international relations.

    $300 per week to host a smugglee. What a sales pitch for the up and coming people smuggler. After a short detention when you arrive, we can place you with a nice family – or even better, the Aussie sponsors who sent you the $7000 by Western Union to buy the trip! That way in 6 months they can get their money back courtesy of the thankful Aussie taxpayer.

    There is a solution to this racket – a morally defensible one at that. Those who have the money to pay people smugglers are automatically deported back to Indonesia on the grounds that refugees in camps around the region (the Burmese in Malaysia for example) who do not have a razoo are more in need or resettlement and have a moral and legal right to be resettled ahead of a smugglee. Of course David Mann (he of the taxpayer funded refugee legal service) will object that such deportation breaches the UN convention and Indonesia would not allow them back in any case.

    Thats where the Bob Carr art of gentle persuasion comes into play. I would expect that our intelligence service, if it is doing its job, would know the names and addresses of a good number of Indonesian officials who are paid by the smugglers to facilitate the trade. Local police chiefs, harbourmasters, village chiefs would know exactly which boats have been bought and when and where they depart for Australia. Now Mr Bang Bang Yudyonono and his dapper little foreign minister might not be personally getting a slice of the action, but a well presented dossier of the culprits and the embarassing links to the Indonesian Government would be useful in making both an offer they could not refuse.

    Indonesia takes back a couple of boat loads of smugglees who are instantly deported by air on arrival in Australia, and Mr Carr will not publish the dossier or leak it to the media. It would only take a couple of deportations to stop the trade. As soon as the word got up the smuggler pipeline that a paid trip will result in immediate deportation, then the game is up. There is no product to sell.

    And as for breaking the UN Convention – Australia mades its laws to proscribe paying a smuggler and that prima facie any boat originating from Indonesia or other nominated places is a smuggled transit. If that won’t stand a High Court challenge – then we simply withdraw from the UN Convention and enact our version into law. This would bring us into line with most of the countries in our region.

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