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