Australia’s Foreign Policy Trailing a Leaky Boat. Guest Blogger: Arja Keski-Nummi

Nov 21, 2013

Our foreign policy is more than boats or asylum seekers but that is what the Abbott government has reduced it to.

We should all be concerned because what is at stake is much greater than stopping boats – it jeopardizes our ability to influence and be taken seriously on issues of greater importance to our long term future and well-being such as cooperation in security related issues, trade and in the longer term building genuine regional cooperation on asylum seekers and displaced people.

Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have much to learn if we are to have a credible stand in the region. The sycophancy of Tony Abbott’s comments in Indonesia and Sri Lanka fooled no one and least of all his hosts but it belittled us.

In Bali on 7 October he said this of West Papua “… The situation in West Papua is getting better, not worse, and I want to acknowledge the work that President Yudhoyono has done to provide greater autonomy, to provide a better level of government services and ultimately a better life for the people of West Papua. ….[and then]…. and while I acknowledge the right of people to free expression, I acknowledge the right of people to fair treatment under the law, I should also make the point that the people of West Papua are much better off as part of a strong, dynamic and increasingly prosperous Indonesia.”  And last week in in Sri Lanka – where he virtually justified the use of torture by saying that. “We accept that sometimes, in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen,”

Unbelievable and contradictory comments that fly in the face of the evidence. Tony Abbott and his government must be living in a parallel universe!

Australia is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture. Our long held position has been that we do not condone torture in any form anywhere. Has our policy on this changed? Are we now to “turn a blind eye” to inconvenient truths if it means we can stop the boats?  The import of the Prime Minister’s speeches in Indonesia and Sri Lanka would suggest that he will ditch any ethical positions or long held conventions to “stop the boats”. He will debase our foreign policy to get a domestic issue, largely whipped up by him in Opposition, off his back.

Equally disturbing is the fact that no conditions have been placed on how the patrol boats gifted to Sri Lanka will be used. One can speculate how they will be used. The cynic in me can see them being a convenient vehicle to facilitate the movement of people out of Sri Lanka via corrupt navy personnel. The other extreme where they become the vehicle for greater human rights abuses by preventing people being able to seek asylum and so potentially we will be putting ourselves in breach of our Refugee Convention obligations. A breach we should take seriously but I suspect under this government will not register as a transgression worth worrying about.

How we work and cooperate with countries in the region across many issues is important. However, it does not mean that we should or need to go overboard and explicitly endorse what should be for us as Australians fundamental universal freedoms and rights.

The latest soap opera being played out on the spying allegations against the President of Indonesia, his wife and senior colleagues betray just how fragile the relationship is with Indonesia. Despite his speech currying favour with Indonesia just a few short weeks ago it was not enough. This, together with the government’s seeming disregard of Indonesia’s sovereignty with its own Operation Sovereign Borders policy and Abbott’s his appalling lack of judgment in not even being able to pick up a phone and talk to the President, has meant that his Jakarta not Geneva policy is in tatters for the time being.  It will turn a corner at some point but I suspect the Indonesian government is in no hurry to forgive him; first for how he spoke of the region while in Opposition and now how he has handled the spying fiasco. They know they hold in their hands the success of his domestic policy on boats and will play it for as much as it is worth.

The tragedy of such games is that it plays with the lives of desperate people – boats will come, tragedies will occur and it need not be so.

What we need is an approach on asylum seekers that is rooted in reality and underpinned by ethical considerations:

  • It should not be a military operation – how can we be at war with asylum seekers, people often fleeing real wars?
  • We should not turn asylum seekers into criminals but understand that even if they are not refugees they are doing what we all do – aspire to a better life for us and our families.
  • We should accept that we cannot be a “fortress Australia” but what we can be is a country that can help in finding durable solutions for refugees and asylum seekers; this does not always mean that the only outcome is to come or remain in Australia.

What this episode shows is that we cannot manage these issues on our own. The only way we can do this is working in the region with our partners in governments and civil society and that requires trust and being there for the long haul, not merely until the “problem” is fixed. At the moment we are displaying very little of that in the ham-fisted way this government is pursuing its policy on “stopping the boats”


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



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