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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.


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.


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13 thoughts on “Dog-whistle politics offends Indonesian ears

  1. Bill Hilliger

    Unlike what would have happened if it had been labour government ineptness on refugee issues; for this one which relates directly to the coalition I bet there will be no megaphone reporting in the electronic media on the Julie Bishop arrogance in dealing with the Indonesians.

  2. robinw

    Wouldn’t it be ironic that a Coalition victory could mean that the Indonesians, pissed off by the Coalitions ineptitude, de-regulate their side of the fence thus allowing a flood of boat people to hit our shores. Good one, guys, I’m sure you planned for this all the time.

    A good spin off for us is that we could finally see the so called ‘boat people’ as genuine refugees from a situation that in some of the cases at least, we had a hand in creating in the first place. The most worrying part of all of this is that this opposition of ours could place us all in a very sticky situation thanks to their stupidity should they gain the Treasury benches. It seems that the White Australia Policy is still there with them as evidenced by this latest attempt at telling others how to run their countries.

  3. James K

    Excellent article.

    But wow: these people (Bishop and co) might just be driving the nation soon. What a disturbing thought.

  4. zut alors

    I agree with the remarks by RobinW at 2.25pm.

    The Opposition oozes its usual charm – if Indonesia thinks Bish0p was arrogant they ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Abb0tt and Co have scarcely begun to warm up.

  5. James K

    One of the tragic ironies in all this could be a major increase in the
    number of boat arrivals after the coalition win power.

    Now what major media would stop reporting that I wonder?

  6. mattsui

    I wait for the popular response to the inevitable cheering and bluster from a coalition Government and it’s media backers when the first boat is “turned back”. One suspects that the overwhelming majority will be feeling something other than national pride.

  7. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Even sadder is that the highly professional work by our diplomats, unreported by the media, to win Indonesia’s support for curtailing the journey of mainly legitimate refugees, aboard desperately, unsafe transport, is likely to be jeopardised.
    In a country where wealth is not evenly divided, it is very challenging to arrest the flow where relatively large sums are available to profit those in the “boat people” business for greed, or even those few with more humane intentions.

    The Indonesian Government is actually quite effective, in most difficult circumstances, and crass actions by those who should know better, like Ms Bishop, do not help anyone find a resolution. In fact it demonstrates again that the Coalition is only interested in gaining power at any cost.

    However the sooner that the present Government increases the numbers of genuine refuges through recognised channels, the sooner this wholes sorry saga will end; for the benefit of both countries.

  8. Gerry Hatrick, OAP

    And so I turn on the news tonight,
    [“Coalition Boat people plans sink new low”]
    [Not here says Indonesia]
    [Get stuffed Bishop says Indonesia]

    Ohh, what a world I live in

  9. AR

    It may have been a dream but I seem to recall, almost 40yrs ago a hundred thousand refugees, indistinguishable from (if in not the same) people our troops had been fighting for almost ten years, were welcomed into Australia, by the then PM, who had been the Army Minister who’d sent our troops to that far away country. Those people became tax paying citizens.
    Fortunately, it was only a dream and i awoke to the reality of today… ah sweet Morpheus, please return all is forgiven.

  10. Lin Bowden


    You clearly did not get the memo. So, let me tell you slowly: WE will decide who comes into this country, and the methods by which they come. Any Australian political leader suspected of taking dictation to the contrary from foreigners, will be mauled by the Australian people.

    Consider the memo served. You have no excuses in future to write such ill-uninformed gutless un-Australian drivel. Where is your national self-respect FFS?

  11. Paul

    If the Libs get any lower than Bishops and Morrisons latest I can’t imagine what it would be.

    Morrison has told people not to support the residential detention system recently developed because your families will be in physical danger from the refugees. You will be in danger from people who have fled persecution to seek safety in Australia and the Libs are saying these people will attack and harm your children and grandparents.

    He has also said refugees should be treated with respect, Malaysia is wrong because, well he doesn’t like it etc etc.

    Sadly, but yet again, the Australian media is silent on this disgusting position.

    Gratton, Kelley et al say always that Libs are better at politics than Gillard, and this clearly is what our “respected” commentators believe is good politics. They disgust me as much as the Liberals.

    Is there not one member of the Liberal party prepared to stand up and object to this style of politics?

  12. James K

    Lin Bowden – it is all so simple isn’t it!? It just comes down to the one
    line you have put to us: we decide who comes here and no other govt
    can dictate that to us.

    Wow. You must be a genius. The rest of us were deceived into thinking
    this was a complex issue with many important considerations… but now:
    it is so simple!

    So it has nothing to do with the reality of people movements that have
    happened all through human history and still do. It has nothing to do
    with desparate people doing whatever they can, any way they can, to
    try to get to a safer more humane country. It has nothing to do with
    maintaining good international relationships with our near neighbours
    in particular. It has nothing to do with contributing to a global response
    to the refugee and asylum seeker problem. It has nothing to do with
    fulfilling our international obligations that we as a nation chose to
    sign off on over a half a century ago (our decision, no one made us do
    that). It has nothing to do with caring for the poor and displaced in the
    world. It has nothing to do with showing compassion and sharing some
    of our great country with others in need.

    No… just “we decide – stupid people cant you see?”

    Maybe some of us have “just decided” it is okay to take more refugees.

  13. 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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