Once again, those of us who remain foolishly trapped in the reality-based community can only marvel at the leaps and bounds of Tony Abbott, leader of the assertion-based community, this time on turning asylum seeker boats around.

“Impossible” and “not advisable”, according to the Indonesian Foreign Minister. Indonesia won’t tolerate it, according to reports from last week’s meeting between the Prime Minister and President Yudhoyono. “It’s going to put people’s lives at risk,” said Chief of Navy Ray Griggs. “My expectation wouldn’t be very high [that] it’s going to work in many cases,” says former admiral Chris Barrie. “It’s dangerous work,” says … Tony Abbott himself.

Nonetheless, Abbott insists he’ll do it anyway. The Indonesians will just have to cop it. But, Abbott insists, he will have such a good relationship with Indonesia, so deft will his diplomatic touch be, they won’t mind.

Tony Abbott, Indonesian Whisperer.

Abbott’s “well look, they just are” approach extends beyond Jakarta to points further afield. Confronted by a pesky journalist yesterday in Perth who asked about how boats from Sri Lanka would be turned back, Abbott claimed “the Sri Lankan Navy is in fact doing a pretty good job of turning boats around that are coming from Sri Lanka.”

Leaving aside the Sir Lankan Navy’s possible role in war crimes, despite this “pretty good job” more than 20 boats have reached Australia from Sri Lanka this year, and a small number from southern India.

Turning them around might be tricky — the Navy will have to refuel the boats to enable them to make the return journey. Maybe they can use the fuel taken off the boats from Indonesia.

Ever since the days of the boatphone, which had Tony Abbott sitting at Kirribilli pushing plastic boats round a map while barking instructions to naval officers down the phone, this obsession with demonstrating toughness by insisting on turning boats around has been absurd. Julie Bishop seemed to admit as much when she told the Indonesian ambassador in March that no boats would be turned around without consultation with Indonesia — a position now apparently abandoned in light of Abbott’s Cop It Sweet Doctrine.

The absurdity has infected other Coalition frontbenchers like Joe Hockey, who put their hands on their hearts and insist they can’t for a moment stomach the vast abrogation of basic human rights that is transfer to Malaysia, while insisting they’ll send asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

“They put themselves in Indonesia, they didn’t put themselves in Malaysia,” Abbott insists by way of difference. Which overlooks that a significant proportion of asylum seekers coming from Indonesia, perhaps the majority, have initially come through Malaysia.

Facts and consistency are of no moment in the assertion-based community. Less ignorable, however, are other people, and particularly other countries. In an effort to pretend he has any more interest in foreign policy than the Prime Minister (you’ll look in vain in Battlelines for any reference to Indonesia; in fact the only foreign policy reference is to the “Anglosphere”), Abbott has recently begun insisting Indonesia will be his foreign policy priority.

But this didn’t extend to bothering to raise his signature policy relating to Indonesia with the president of that country in direct talks. For once, Gillard’s criticism of Abbott is bang on the mark: failure to do so was a demonstrable act of cowardice from a leader who likes to portray himself as tough and uncompromising.

It’s a policy position that can only be held by someone who knows perfectly well there’ll never be a single boat turned around, or who simply couldn’t care less how dangerous such a policy is in diplomatic and human terms.

Peter Fray

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