A somersault – back to business as usual. Guest blogger: Arja Keski-Nummi

Oct 3, 2013

While in opposition Tony Abbot conducted a robust and aggressive policy on boats that effected Indonesia. But now he has done a somersault in order to put the Australian-Indonesian relationship back on a more even footing. As his speech at the official dinner portrays he has gone to the other extreme and engaged in rather sycophantic toadying.

Tony Abbott’s robust approach to people smuggling and asylum issues in opposition reflected his focus on domestic politics where he was using this issue opportunistically in a volatile political environment and with one eye on the elections. As a result the foreign policy implications of his approach were held at a discount. In government this is no longer possible.

Lets look at what he said in Opposition – “Operation Sovereign Borders” was his signature policy on how in Government the matter of boat arrivals would be handled. From the outset the discomfort of Indonesia was obvious, particularly returning boats to Indonesia, the use of transit facilities in Indonesia for the transfer of asylum seekers as well as the idea of buying boats and paying for information.  Operation Sovereign Borders seemed to rely on ignoring the sovereignty of another country.

It was inevitable then that this first visit by Tony Abbott to Indonesia was going to put boats in the spotlight.

So, what’s new with the Prime Minister’s visit to Jakarta? If the reporting is to be believed nothing has changed.  His speech makes it clear that what he has had to do was adapt his rhetoric to fit into a pre-existing relationship and eat his own words on what he said in Opposition.

President Yudhoyono threw a bone in Tony Abbott’s direction and he grabbed it.

The Australian media have likewise breathlessly reported that Jakarta has agreed to bilateral cooperation over the Bali Process and multilateral action.

The fact is the bilateral cooperation on boats has been strong for some time.  The Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers identified that some $101 million was allocated to combatting people smuggling in the 2010-11 budget. Some $10million was specifically earmarked towards the care and maintenance of people intercepted in Indonesia. The Australian Federal Police had a budget of $12.3 million for capability and capacity building activities for law enforcement agencies in source and transit countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.   Based on these figures a conservative estimate of how much of this was for bilateral cooperation and operations in Indonesia would suggest that it would be close to $30 million across the customs, AFP and Immigration agencies. This does not include development assistance through AUSAID or defence and intelligence operations.

So, if you were to actually analyse what has been said and agreed to regarding the government’s policy Operation Sovereign Borders by Indonesia it really amounts to much of the same. In 2010 Australia and Indonesia signed the Australia-Indonesia Implementation Framework for Cooperation on People Smuggling and Trafficking in Person which has been the main vehicle for strengthening the bilateral partnership on issues relating to people trafficking, protection claims, people smuggling and asylum seekers in ways that address the particular interests of both countries.  It is through this framework, established under the Labor Government, that practical bilateral cooperation is and will be channeled.

The AFP will continue to pay for information through its established channels. Maybe just a little more money will flow in that direction. Boats will be intercepted and people intercepted in Indonesia will be referred to UNHCR and IOM for registration, processing and support in housing and welfare.  Protocols and practical cooperation around maritime interceptions, emergency rescues and Safety of Life at Sea will continue to be developed. The bilateral operational working groups will continue to meet and thrash out knotty issues on visas, border management and people smuggling laws.  There will be the usual give and take as assessments are made on how far a particular matter can be pushed before it backfires.

At the same time the multilateral processes such as the Bali Process will continue to grow as Indonesia knows all too well that they are the “endpoint” of the transit movement and nothing can be achieved unless the countries en route are engaged and supported. They will continue to talk to Geneva even if we don’t because they know that UNHCR is a key to ensuring that any arrangements put in place are sound and has the imprimatur of the international community.

In short, Tony Abbott’s visit to Indonesia was unremarkable. A few tidbits were thrown his way but when all is said and done it will be more of the same.  But the rhetoric about boats has served its domestic political purpose

Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division in Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2007-2010



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