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Nov 11, 2013

With Indonesia, the relationship is going from bad to worse

Relations between Australia and Indonesia have reached a nadir. And it's entirely the fault of Australian policy. The government's turn-back-the-boats policy is now in tatters.



Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is at one of its historic low points, despite claims to the contrary by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. What is unusual about this most recent contretemps with Indonesia, with which Australia has previously had several difficulties, is that, unlike in the past, the current problems are entirely a consequence of Australian policy.

Australia’s alleged spying on Indonesia is both bipartisan and largely necessary. But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not yet moved to allay concerns in Jakarta by saying Australia’s intelligence program will be reviewed and offensive activity ceased (even if it will not).

However, the Australian government’s handling of the asylum seeker issue has been purely a matter of domestic political choice. It is an “own goal” that was part of the planning for the game.

That policy is all but in tatters, following Indonesia refusing to readmit 63 asylum seekers bound for Australia. According to Indonesian authorities, this is the third such refusal to accept back asylum seekers; Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has finally acknowledged it was at least the second such rebuff, not having acknowledged previous problems in his less-than-frank weekly briefings on the asylum seeker issue.

Indonesia’s point-blank refusal to accept the asylum seekers on this more public occasion has raised real doubts about whether the government’s policy on turning back asylum seekers can work. If the government cannot turn back boats, as it said it would in opposition, it may now be forced to accept the same, much criticised policy as adopted by the former Labor government.

Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Legal Political and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, is expected to soon formalise Indonesia’s permanent refusal to accept asylum seekers from Australian rescue vessels, other than in emergency situations. This would appear to end the government’s plan to return asylum seekers “when safe to do so”. Indicating Indonesia’s growing frustration with Australia, on Friday, Djoko said:

“The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government.”

Following Djoko’s statement, the Australian government backed down on its push to have Indonesia accept the asylum seekers.

Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro added to Indonesia’s public dismay over Australian asylum seeker policy by confirming that Indonesia had never agreed to asylum seekers being returned to Indonesia and that Australia should “send the asylum seekers to their detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not to Indonesia”.

Anger in Indonesia over Australia’s attempt to return the asylum seekers has further damaged relations already seriously strained over allegations of Australian spying in Indonesia. Indonesia’s presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah has again reconfirmed that spying on Indonesia is “unacceptable”.

In response, he said that Indonesia “will take steps that cannot be disclosed to the public”. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already identified co-operation on people smuggling and terrorism as areas that will be “reviewed”.

The government’s closely controlled media management strategy also appears to be coming unstuck over these two issues, with Indonesian authorities either contradicting or providing alternative accounts of matters that the Australian government is only reluctantly revealing.

The issue of Australia spying on Indonesia is far from resolved, and the asylum seeker issue is now front and centre. No doubt, where Indonesia is concerned, the government must be hoping that bilateral policy issues don’t come in threes.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre of Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University


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21 thoughts on “With Indonesia, the relationship is going from bad to worse

  1. Frank Chalmers

    Perhaps the third issue is the upcoming Indonesian elections.

  2. rumtytum

    When the new government told us that we weren’t going to be given any information about refugee boat arrivals I read interviews with Christmas Island residents who said they’d be happy to let us know what was going on there. Can somebody tell me why that seems to have never happened? Have these whistle-blowers suddenly got cold feet? Have they been threatened? Bribed? Or are our news media playing Abbott’s game and keeping us in the dark?

  3. klewso

    The results from the ministrations of a patronising and paternalistic government.
    Probably exacerbated by the antics of the Bishop Princess of Plagiarism misrepresenting certain realities, after which the Indonesians have to “leak” to set the record straight?

  4. Boerwar

    ‘What is unusual about this most recent contretemps with Indonesia, with which Australia has previously had several difficulties, is that, unlike in the past, the current problems are entirely a consequence of Australian policy.’

    It is not just the policies. It is the Liberal Government people. They are arrogant and insensitive. They just have to be, in the eyes of Indonesians, serial misrepresenters at best, and serial liars at worst.

    Bishop serially misrepresented the content and tone of her meetings with Natalegawa. He retaliated by publishing a record of meeting – a serious diplomatic no-no. Bishop now nominates Natalegawa as a ‘good friend’. Sure.

    Bishop, before the elections, announced that the Coalition policies were implementable regardless of what Indonesia thought. Sure.

    Morrison says that he can’t see ‘rhyme nor reason’ in the way Indonesians make decisions about accepting rescued asylum seekers. Sure. The Indonesians are crazy, right?

    Morrison says that he approached the Indonesians to accept rescued asylum seekers in confidence. Then he announces that this is what he has done. How confidential is that?

    Abbott announces that Indonesian-Australian relations are ‘improving’ when a bevy of very senior Indonesians are signalling the opposite. This is another bad Abbott gambit – implicitly telling a bevy of senior Indonesians that they are wrong.

    Bishop and Abbott repeatedly announce ‘respect’ for Indonesia but have done nothing to take disrespectful policies – paying Indonesians for information (on ground spying!) and buying Indonesia boats being a couple that could safely be ditched. But all three insist that none of the policies are off the table.

    Finally, there is the birds-of-a-feather issue. Abbott was interviwed by Alan Jones this morning, for example. The Indonesians know perfectly well the track record of Jones, Hadley, Barnardi and sundry burka-baiting Liberals. Abbott hangs around with these people all the time. He keeps them in his Party. But Abbott cannot go ‘barley charley’ to the Indonesians on that. There is no confession, penance and absolution in that particular space. So, it turns out that if you lie down with islamophobic dogs, you get up with an international flea in your ear.

    This is all to the cost of our national interests – if the anxious pleas from Australian business interests are to be believed.

    Recently, Abbott rabbited on overseas (casually smashing yet another traditional convention) about the previous Labor Government being ‘wacko’.

    Pot meet kettle.

  5. klewso

    Ahhhh, “The White Man’s Burden”?

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    It is illegal for us to return any asylum seeker to any territory where they are not provided with legal protection as refugees.

    There is no legal protection in Indonesia and we have known that for decades so why do we persist in this sort of crap?

    Article 33 of the refugee convention covers refoulement in full, it has no geographic boundaries and does not refer just to the country of origin.

    In recent years Indonesia has had corrupt Australian trained officials beating, torturing and killing refugees, which we pay for.

    And there is no people smuggling, why do the Australian media and polity and academics whinge incessantly about something that does not now and has never existed?

    Crossing borders to seek asylum is legal always under international law and our own laws, why pretend it is smuggling when for 14 years our own courts have said it is not.

  7. j.oneill

    Mark Kenny has an interesting analysis in this morning’s SMH. He makes a number of points that should have been made before the election, including the simplistic stupidity of the “stop the boats” sloganeering of the last election; the incredible arrogance of Morrison et al in keeping basic information from the Australian public; and the ham-fisted manner of Abbott and Bishop’s “diplomacy”.

    In short the electorate was conned by Coalition slogans masquerading as feasible policy. Well, you have three years to repent. I shudder to think of the damage Abbott and his Tory ideologues will do to Australian interests in the meantime. The diplomatic bungles are not unique, as the anti-science exposes on two other items in today’s Crikey make all too clear.

  8. Andybob

    So now the letter writers and shock jocks are frothing at the mouth about why Australia is rescuing boats in distress within Indonesia’s search and rescue zone in the first place. Yes Virginia, these are the same people who cried crocodile tears over drownings and supported repressive conditions on asylum seekers so as to deter others.

    Hopefully the government can resist the urge to throw out the oldest and most important tradition of seafaring, the absolute obligation to rescue and assist wherever and whenever necessary. But sadly I’m not feeling confident about that.

  9. Bill Hilliger

    For Abbott relations with Indonesia go beyond a three word slogan …and, that’s a real challenge that many say is beyond his talent. As for the queen of plagiarism, she’ll just have to stare them down.

  10. CML

    If Julie Bishop, as the one female representative in the cabinet, has been chosen on ‘merit’ by the Abbott government, then may the gods help us all over the next (hopefully) three years!
    What a total stuff up!!

  11. The Pav

    I suspect that our Mushroom farmer PM will not start vilifing Indonesia to add to asylum seekers for his own crass polotical purposes.

    One can only hope that Limited News will actually act like a news organisation and not a party political organs and call him out on this.

    I mean if Rupert wasnts to do business in China supporting Abbott may well be counter productive

  12. Electric Lardyland

    Oh well, now that towing back boats to Indonesia seems to be in an entirely predictable shambles, maybe Super Tony can tow them back to Malaysia instead.
    Oh, that’s right, he’s totally against returning refugees to countries that haven’t signed the UN Convention on Refugees, isn’t he? Maybe plan C then, tow them back to Sri Lanka, or up the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan. What could possibly go wrong?

  13. Observation

    It is quite obvious to me that the Indonesian government is way smarter than the Australian voter. Three word slogans dont work on the Indonesians and that has bought the Abbott government to a screaming halt when it comes to the next step in their strategy.

    They will make a movie about the coming three years of this Australian government. And I think it will be a dark comedy!

  14. shepherdmarilyn

    The ALP refused many rescues and hundreds of refugees drowned, the results of their cruelty can be read on sievx. com

  15. Keith Thomas

    “Stop the boats” Did Abbott privately find it impossible to believe he would win the election and be faced with delivering on promises?

  16. macca

    Why is our grossly remunerated PM in hiding while the nation cringes ….

  17. David Hand

    It’s ironic that so many posters here seem to be very impressed by Indonesia’s ability to stop the boats. Hey, maybe we should copy them!

  18. condel

    Australia turns back boats, Indonesia will not take the asylum , maybe it’s time for asylum seekers to seek else where. Let things cool down a little because its all pretty *ucked uo right now.

  19. Rena Zurawel

    There is a fundamental problem with the LAW here. Both international and the Australian Migration Act.
    It seems to me that Liberals are unwilling to abide by LAW.
    The irony is that the boat people have been singled out on the basis of means of transport they use to come to Australia. If they came by plane (on false docs) they would not be sent to jail for years without a court sentence.
    It is not only current laws. The Australian Constitution allows people from all over the world to seek asylum on our shores.
    So, what do the Libs do??
    They make sure that asylum seekers do not reach our shores.
    Indonesia does not have immigration program. And Indonesia has never signed the Convention. They have no duty of care for the people who do not want to live in Indonesia.
    The funny thing is that Julia Bishop refers everybody who seeks answers to the the office of Immigration minister.
    I would have thought that our relationships with other countries are in her portfolio.
    Is she really qualified to do her job?
    Now, we are facing a double Bishop drama; both in the the parliament and on international waters.
    Let the game begin.

  20. Rena Zurawel

    Ad. condel

    I would advise everybody who wants to discuss refugee issues to read the book of law, first.
    The Australian government was a co-author of the Refugee Convention, which clearly states that everybody on our planet has the right to choose the place of abode.
    If we, for some reason, do not want to be responsible for refugee programs – we have every right to withraw our obligation. It is enough to give a 12 month notice to the UN.
    Australia is quick to use international laws when it suits her.
    We are rather reluctant to obey them.

  21. David Hand

    The refugee convention does not give everybody on our planet the right to choose the place of abode. It does not even oblige receiving countries to permanently settle refugees.

    As far as the LAW goes, Indonesia has a clear responsibility to rescue any boats in distress in its own search and rescue zone. The Australian navy is in a cleft stick here because if it allows a boat to sink that the Indonesians are responsible for rescuing, people like you would blame Tony Abbott. In fact, the whole SIEV X conspiracy theory is built on such an event.


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