With some canny scaling back of his asylum seeker rhetoric and a hardening on West Papua, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has done much to retrieve his first international trip. The Indonesian political elite has been steadily raising the temperature on the Coalition’s asylum seeker policies, seen as direct affronts to Indonesian sovereignty, for some time. And Alexander Downer blundered clumsily into the issue last week with some extraordinarily hostile comments which will have been seen, however unfairly, as an expression of the Coalition’s real feelings about Indonesia.
But by softening his rhetoric, making a point of acknowledging Indonesian sovereignty and downplaying the asylum seeker issue (which will be delegated to more junior ministers) in his meeting with President Yudhoyono, the Prime Minister was able to defuse a source of tension, albeit one entirely and unnecessarily of his own making.
However, the Prime Minister went further than merely recognising Indonesian sovereignty:
“I say to you, Bapak President and to the people of Indonesia that the government of Australia takes a very dim view, a very dim view indeed, of anyone seeking to use our country as a platform for grand standing against Indonesia. We will do everything that we possibly can to discourage this and to prevent this.
“I admire and respect what you and your government have done to improve the autonomy and the life of the people of West Papua and I am confident that they can have the best possible life and the best possible future as a part of an indissoluble Indonesia, as an integral part of Indonesia.”
Abbott has previously claimed to be a strong proponent of free speech. Quite what “discouraging” and “preventing” people from “grandstanding” on the West Papua issue entails remains to be seen. Advocates of West Papuan independence are unrealistic in their support for yet another unviable microstate on Australia’s doorstep. But the record of the Indonesian government and in particular its military in West Papua is deeply concerning. Abbott has no right or authority to attempt to “prevent” legitimate criticism, regardless of how much he wants to make up for the offence his asylum seeker policies have caused.
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