New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said yesterday the conservative opposition’s proposal to turn back asylum seeker boats risked inciting conflict with Indonesia, signaling that the sensitive policy will be a key issue in September elections.
Speaking in his first press conference since being reappointed prime minister in a party coup, Rudd said he would call Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later yesterday about security issues.
Australia is grappling with a record influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat, with more than 10,000 arriving in the first half of this year, many from transit hubs in Indonesia.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who polls currently indicate will win the election, has suggested turning back boats carrying asylum seekers to Indonesia — a move that Jakarta has not welcomed.
“I really wonder if he is trying to risk conflict with Indonesia... there have been some pretty rough times in the relationship, I never want to see that again,” Rudd said in Canberra.
Rudd said he meant a diplomatic rather than a military conflict, but added: “I am always wary about where diplomatic conflicts go.”
The former Australian foreign minister said that if Indonesia indicated it would not support Abbott’s policy and it was pursued regardless, “you end up with a pretty robust diplomatic conflict and I become a little uncertain as to where that heads.”
“I have had enough experience in international relations... to know one thing: You really need to have some pretty cool hands on the tiller when you’re dealing with the Indonesia relationship,” Rudd said.
The opposition rejected Rudd’s comments, with foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop describing them as “utterly outrageous.”
“The prime minister of this country has falsely, maliciously, recklessly, irresponsibly said that the coalition would trigger conflict with Indonesia,” Bishop told Sky News.
“It is not our policy to breach Indonesian territorial sovereignty, nor is it our policy to trigger a conflict with Indonesia. It is an utterly, utterly outrageous statement for Kevin Rudd to make. And if this is the behavior we can expect from the prime minister within 24 hours of him being sworn in as prime minister, then we are in for a very ugly period of Australian politics,” she added.
Rudd said he was not suggesting Abbott would intentionally rouse diplomatic tensions.
Rudd also put gay marriage on the election agenda yesterday, calling for a bipartisan conscience ballot on the issue and raising the possibility of putting it to a direct public vote.
Rudd said lawmakers from all parties ought to be allowed a conscience vote — where MPs vote on personal conviction rather than party lines — on the issue.
His ruling Labor party formally changed its position on the issue in December 2011 to pro-gay marriage, but Rudd and his predecessor Gillard have both historically been against the reform.
There was a conscience vote on the issue in September which was defeated 98 votes to 42 after conservative leader Tony Abbott refused to allow opposition MPs to break with party lines, rendering it a null prospect.
Both Gillard and Rudd voted “no” in the September ballot, but Rudd, a Christian, has since changed his position and challenged Abbott to a second vote where conservatives would be freed from party doctrine.
“Whoever wins the next election, please, let’s just have the civility to open this to a conscience vote for all,” Rudd said.
If Abbott refused, Rudd said there were other options, including a referendum or plebiscite putting the question directly to the Australian public for a vote, because “I would just prefer to have this thing resolved.”
“I would like to see this done, and the reason I want to see it done is frankly it causes so many people such unnecessary angst out in Australia, in the gay and lesbian community,” Rudd said.
“It just should not be the case,” he added.