Newly elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott played down Indonesian opposition to his controversial refugee boat plans yesterday and pledged to never “do or propose” anything that would impinge its sovereignty.
Abbott has plans to travel to Jakarta next week ahead of the APEC summit for bilateral talks, which are likely to be dominated by his contentious, military-led operation to turn asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia, a key staging point for the thousands of asylum seekers that arrive in Australia every year by boat.
The plan, named Operation Sovereign Borders, has rankled Indonesia, with Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa telling Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop this week that Jakarta “cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate sovereignty.”
Abbott, who has kept a low profile since being sworn into office last week, downplayed Natalegawa’s concerns yesterday.
“I’m not sure that’s the case,” he said when it was put to him that Indonesia saw his policies as an affront to their sovereignty. He also stepped back from earlier rhetoric from Bishop suggesting that the new conservative Liberal-National government would not seek Indonesia’s permission to implement its plans, which also include buying up fishing boats to keep them from the hands of people smugglers, embedding Australian police in Indonesian villages and paying locals for intelligence.
“It’s not a question of forcing anyone, it’s a question of working very cooperatively and constructively with our neighbors to ensure that this terrible problem, not just for us but for our region, is addressed and stopped,” Abbott told reporters.
“We absolutely respect Indonesia’s sovereignty and we would never do or propose anything which is contrary to that,” he added.
Abbott said the “important thing to remember is that Australia has a very good relationship with Indonesia,” and the two nations had worked “very constructively” together in the past on the issue of people smuggling.
“We are, even now, working very well together with the Indonesians, but we can do better in the future,” Abbott said.
Bishop has described her talks with Natalegawa as “very productive and positive,” and said she was confident Abbott would be able to implement his policies.