Australia's Tony Abbott cancels trip to Indonesia, and report links it to interception of asylum seekers' boat

Australian PM won't say why he's skipping Bali conference, but report links it to turning back of asylum seekers, a sore point with Indonesia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 May, 2014, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 6:06am


Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday cancelled a trip to Indonesia amid reports that the interception of an asylum seekers' boat could renew tensions between the neighbours.

Abbott's office confirmed he no longer intended to travel to Bali on Tuesday for a meeting with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But it declined to go into the reasons for putting off the visit, which had been seen as a move to improve relations tested by recent rows over espionage and Australia's policies on refugees.

A spokesman for Abbott said: "The prime minister was hoping to attend the Open Government Partnership conference in Bali next week at the invitation of His Excellency President Yudhoyono. The prime minister is grateful for the invitation.

"Unfortunately, the prime minister is unable to attend at this time and he hopes to visit Indonesia to meet the president at a mutually convenient time."

It would have been Abbott's first trip to Indonesia since damaging revelations in November that Australian spies attempted in 2009 to tap the phones of Yudhoyono, his wife and other members of his inner circle.

Jakarta reacted furiously to the news, recalling its ambassador and halting co-operation in key areas including defence and people-smuggling.

Tensions rose further after Canberra's military-led crackdown on asylum seekers making their way to Australia by boat from Indonesia.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the trip was cancelled after a people-smuggling vessel was intercepted in the sea corridor between the two countries as part of "Operation Sovereign Borders", under which boats are turned back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so.

Citing government sources, the ABC said there were fears Abbott's visit would be an "embarrassment" to Yudhoyono. The Australian government refuses to confirm or disclose details of its refugee operations for security reasons. The opposition Greens and Labor parties urged Abbott to reveal his reasons for cancelling the trip, accusing him of further damaging ties with Jakarta by doing so.

"It's ironic the invitation to Indonesia was to a conference on open government and our prime minister won't tell us why he's rejected the invitation at this late stage," said Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek. "It's very important the prime minister discloses the reason that he's not going, because Australians deserve to know why he's putting further pressure on the relationship with such an important neighbour."

A spokesman for Yudhoyono said Abbott's absence would not cause offence and it would have no effect on negotiations towards a "code of conduct" on spying which are under way between the two countries.

Teuku Faizasyah said there had been "background conversations" about why the trip had been cancelled, but nothing had been confirmed.

He had read media reports of an asylum seekers' boat near Ashmore Reef, but said he had heard nothing first hand and had no reason to believe this was the reason for the cancellation.