Wed, Oct 02, 2013 - Page 6 News List

Abbott wavers on asylum seekers


Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gives a speech yesterday to an Australian-Indonesian business forum in Jakarta.

Photo: AFP

New Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday said he remained committed to crushing the “evil scourge” of people-smuggling, but appeared to waver on some of the key elements of his hardline boatpeople policy.

On a trip to Jakarta, where officials have complained his plans to tackle asylum-seekers arriving by boat threaten Indonesian sovereignty, Abbott said he was encouraged by the response he received at a critical meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“I made it very clear that this is an issue of sovereignty for us and I think I can say that on the Indonesian side, there was a willingness to be as cooperative as was possible to ensure this evil scourge is ended,” he told reporters.

“We are 100 percent committed to stopping the boats, we are 100 percent committed to the policies that we took to the election and the policies that are necessary to stop the boats,” he said.

Abbott won a landslide election last month with his “stop the boats” mantra, which involved plans to tow asylumseeker vessels from Australian waters and buy boats from Indonesian fishermen to prevent people smugglers from buying them first.

While his policies helped propel him to power in Australia, they caused consternation in Indonesia, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and legislators lining up to criticize them.

However, on his visit to Jakarta, his first overseas trip since becoming prime minister, Abbott has striven to strike a conciliatory tone as he seeks to strengthen business ties with Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

He twice refused to definitively say whether the turn-back plan would actually be implemented.

“Can I just scotch this idea that the coalition’s policy is, or ever has been, ‘tow-backs,’” he said.

“Tow-back” is a term that has been widely used to refer to his plans for Australian Navy boats to take boats back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so. It has been the main reason why officials in Jakarta became concerned that his policies may breach Indonesian sovereignty.

“Our policy, which we’ve repeated till we’re blue in the face, is that we reserve the right to turn boats around where it’s safe to do so,” Abbott said.

“There’s a world of difference between turning boats around in Australia waters, and the Australian navy towing them back to Indonesia,” he said, without elaborating where boats would be dropped off, if not in Indonesia.

Abbott assured Yudhoyono on Monday that Australia had “total respect” for Indonesia’s sovereignty in a bid to ease tensions over the asylumseeker issue.

His interest in keeping on Jakarta’s good side is in large part economic, with Indonesia recording strong growth in recent years.

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