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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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