Even-handed Tony Abbott. John Menadue

In his toxic language over asylum seekers in the last three years, Tony Abbott has been not only derogatory about vulnerable people fleeing persecution, he has also gone out of his way to insult our neighbours in their handling of asylum seekers. He has shown no favouritism. He has insulted them all.

Within the last two weeks he has offered ‘contrition’ to three regional leaders for his insulting language about their policies and performance. He has described his insults as really only part of a ‘rather intense party-political discussion in Australia’. That is sheer evasion. It has been Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who have directly and personally led the attack on asylum seekers and our neighbours.

What must regional leaders think of the intemperate behaviour of our new Prime Minister? In their minds it would not suggest strong and stable leadership on which they can rely. They would reasonably conclude that he will slip into a domestic political mood if that is necessary and ignore relations in the region.

In Jakarta on his first visit, he had to apologise for his challenge to Indonesian sovereignty. He had earlier said that unilaterally his government would tow boats back to Indonesian waters and would intervene in Indonesia to purchase Indonesian vessels. This was clearly blatant intervention in Indonesian affairs. The Indonesian President was polite, but the real annoyance is best judged by statements by the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Members of Parliament, officials and the Indonesian media.

Then in Bali this week at the APEC meeting he apologised to a succession of regional leaders.

He insulted Malaysia in June 2011 when he said ‘Imagine taking boat people from Australia to Malaysia where they will be exposed almost inevitably to the prospect of caning … they will be detained, they will be tagged, they will be let out into the community and in the Malaysian community, people of uncertain immigration status are treated very, very harshly indeed.  … What is supposed to protect people in Malaysia from caning and other very harsh treatment? …. What [the Australian] government is proposing is to take people from Christmas Island, detain them, tag them and then expect that they are not going to be caned.’  Scott Morrison chimed in at the time that ‘Malaysia could not guarantee the human rights of people sent to that country’. For Scott Morrison to espouse the human rights of asylum seekers was surely breath-taking. One would not be surprised that in Bali the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, was left wondering about the behaviour of our new Prime Minister with his belated apology.

After the meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott then had to apologise to PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. During the election campaign Tony Abbott said that to buy the cooperation of PNG the Rudd Government had surrendered control of half a billion dollars annually in overseas aid to PNG. The accident-prone Julie Bishop at the same time attempted to put words into the mouth of Peter O’Neill to the same effect. Peter O’Neill responded at the time that the Opposition claims were ‘completely untrue … we are not going to put up with this nonsense’. At the same time, the PNG High Commissioner in Canberra ‘warned Australian politicians to observe international protocols and courtesies when discussing relations with other friendly sovereign nations and not impugn the dignity of our leaders who are attempting to assist Australia in this very complex regional and international issue of asylum-seekers’.

What enormous damage Tony Abbott has done, not just to asylum seekers who seek our protection, but in relations with our key regional neighbours. The ‘rancorous’ debate we have had in Australia didn’t come out of the air. It was provoked and led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. It has been at great cost. Loose lips do cause damage. They can even sink ships.

More importantly Tony Abbott should apologies to the Australian public for misleading us about his boat “policy” and suggesting that he could pull regional countries into line to do his will.

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