Australian leader Tony Abbott tiptoes round asylum seeker issue in Jakarta

Australian prime minister and his Indonesian host for first overseas state visit careful to dodge controversy over tough line on refugees

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 9:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 5:46pm

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott skirted the question of asylum seekers in talks yesterday in Indonesia, an issue threatening to overshadow his first visit overseas since taking office.

Just days before his visit, at least 31 would-be asylum seekers died when their boat sank off the southern coast of Indonesia.

Video: 'Welcome Refugees' rally in Sydney, refugee sinking toll hits 31

It is a common transit point for refugees trying to make their way to Australia and against whom Abbott's government has promised to take a tougher line.

Rather, Abbott stressed trade ties between the two neighbours which stood at US$10 billion last year, dominated by mining and agriculture.

"The fact that there is a very strong and high-level delegation of business leaders travelling with me to Indonesia as part of this visit testifies to the desire of the Australian people to build a much stronger ... economic relationship based on greater trade and investment," he said in a joint statement after talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Abbott, who took office on September 7, played down diplomatic tensions over refugees.

Ties with Yudhoyono's administration have been largely cordial for nearly a decade.

But Abbott's conservative administration got off to a rocky start over asylum seekers who make their way via Indonesia.

Yudhoyono also put aside any suggestion of rancour over the issue, which has become an emotional debate in Australia.

Yudhoyono said: "Australia and Indonesia are both victims with regard to the issue of people smuggling and boatpeople.

"For instance, there are many people from the Middle East and other nations who come here and become a social and economic burden for Indonesia.

"The solution to this problem is effective co-operation between Indonesia and Australia."

Abbott's party caused anger in Jakarta with new policies which Indonesians saw as violating their country's sovereignty.

One was a proposal to pay Indonesian villagers for information on people smugglers and to buy boats used for smuggling.

"People smuggling is an issue of sovereignty, especially for Australia," Abbott said. "But I do want to stress Australia's total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty." Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in New York last week that any unilateral steps taken by Australia over the issue would put relations at risk.

His comments, made during a private meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, were circulated among journalists. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry later said the comments were distributed in error.

Indonesian lawmakers and the navy also criticised the policy. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, political affairs deputy under Vice-President Boediono, said: "I think that just pursuing policies in a unilateral manner will not help."

She said the Australian plan to tow boats back to Indonesian waters "was not really going to solve the problem, because one can imagine that they [asylum seekers] would try again at the soonest possible opportunity".

About 400 boats carrying asylum seekers have arrived in Australia over the past year.

About 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived since late 2007, when the former Australian Labor government relaxed border policies before eventually tightening them again in the face of a voter backlash.

Fears over the impact of diplomatic tension on business ties between the neighbours were also expressed.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse