Australian PM Tony Abbott under pressure over refugee ‘back-pedal’
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was on Wednesday accused by the opposition of “back-pedalling at 100 miles an hour” on his hardline asylum-seeker policies during a sensitive diplomatic visit to Indonesia this week.
Abbott made Jakarta his first international trip after winning Australia’s elections last month, with a vow to “Stop the Boats” a centrepiece of his campaign.
His policies, which include turning people-smuggling boats back to Indonesia, pre-emptively buying up rickety fishing vessels and paying villagers for intelligence, were coolly received in Jakarta, and Abbott appeared to waver on the key points after talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Striking a more conciliatory tone, Abbott insisted Australia had never said it would tow boats back to Indonesia but “turn boats around when it is safe to do so” and his vessel buy-up “was simply the establishment of some money that could be used by Indonesian officials working co-operatively with their Australian counterparts”.
“The important thing is not to start a fight, but to get things done,” said Abbott.
He was criticised by centre-left Labor, with interim leader Chris Bowen saying it showed “ill thought-out sound grabs from opposition are proving unsustainable in government”.
“Tony Abbott is now back-pedalling from his ridiculous buy-the-boats policy at 100 miles an hour, as he should,” Bowen told the Australian Financial Review.
“However, it is embarrassing for Australia that it took Indonesia to tell us that it wasn’t on, and Tony Abbott didn’t just realise himself that it was a ridiculous policy.”
Separately, Abbott was criticised in Indonesia for barring local journalists from his major press conference during the trip and restricting entry to Australian media.
Umar Idris, from the Alliance of Independent Journalists, said it was the first time he was aware that such an exclusion had been made.
“Australia has good press freedom and so they should practise that in Indonesia as well,” Umar told the Jakarta Globe newspaper, which said its own correspondents had been shut out of the event.
“Tony Abbott’s visit is important for the Indonesian media and journalists should be granted equal, open access.”
Abbott’s government has come under fire at home for limiting the release of information about refugee boats to a weekly briefing, even when a vessel sank last week off Indonesia, killing at least 39 people.