Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday 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 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 co-operative as was possible to ensure this evil scourge is ended,” he told reporters.
“We are 100 per cent committed to stopping the boats, we are 100 per cent committed to the policies that we took to the election and the policies that are necessary to stop the boats.”
Abbott won a landslide election in September with his “stop the boats” mantra, which involved plans to tow asylum-seeker vessels from Australian waters and buy boats from Indonesian fishermen to prevent people smugglers buying them first.
While his policies helped propel him to power in Australia, they caused consternation in Indonesia, with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and lawmakers lining up to criticise them.
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But on his visit to Jakarta, his first overseas trip since becoming premier, 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,” he 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 Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday that Australia had “total respect” for Indonesia’s sovereignty in a bid to ease tensions over the asylum-seeker issue.
His tone is in contrast to remarks made by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who recently declared the government was not seeking permission from Indonesia to implement its policies.
Abbott also declined to say he was committed to the buyback of fishing boats, ridiculed by some Indonesian officials, and said that the policy was only to make money available for fishing communities “to ensure as far as we can we’ve got people working with us rather than against us”.
Abbott’s visit was overshadowed by the sinking of an Australia-bound boat carrying scores of Middle Eastern asylum seekers off Indonesia’s main island of Java on Friday, which has killed at least 41 people and left many others missing.
Hundreds have died in recent years after boarding rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia to make the treacherous sea crossing to Australia.
Abbott’s interest in keeping on Indonesia’s good side is in large part economic, with Indonesia recording strong growth in recent years and the middle class expected to balloon to 135 million people in the next two decades.
“It won’t be very long at all until Indonesia’s total GDP dwarfs ours. From an Australia’s perspective there should be an urgency, a real urgency, to building this relationship,” he told Indonesian and Australian business leaders at a breakfast meeting.