"If Abbott’s tough stance on boat people works...and asylum seekers do stop coming to Australia...not only will Australia benefit...but the policy will also help Indonesia."
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s pre-election promise to ‘turn-back-the boats’ appears to be working. In the past month the number of arrivals at Christmas Island has virtually stopped. During this time, it has now been revealed, some five boats carrying asylum seekers have been either turned around or towed back into Indonesian waters.
This action has caused outrage from sections of our community and human rights activists. If ‘Letters-to-the editor’ in major newspapers are any indication however, the reaction to the Coalition’s tough stance is one of overwhelming support.
The Indonesian government’s position continues to be one of total opposition to Australia ‘going-it-alone’, arguing for a ‘regional solution’ with a consultative and co-operative dialog. Australia’s reluctance to embrace this position by Indonesia has-notwithstanding the spying issue-created the current tensions between our two countries that has seen Australia without a resident Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra for over eight weeks.
The paradox of this stand-off in the bi-lateral relationship is that if Abbott’s tough stance on boat people works in the medium-to-long term, and asylum seekers do stop coming to Australia by this dangerous route, not only will Australia benefit by then having a far more orderly and fair system of accepting people seeking a new life here, but the policy will also help Indonesia.
Indonesia probably has up-to 10,000 asylum seekers living illegally throughout the entire archipelago, creating problems and despair for these people and local residents. The asylum seekers are in Indonesia for only one reason: To get to Australia. They have no wish to remain in Indonesia where life as an illegal entrant can be very difficult.
Once people know there is no ‘onward’ route to Australia via Indonesia as the main transit point, it is almost certain asylum seekers will stop coming to Indonesia.
It is therefore possible for Indonesia and Australia to have strong common ground on the issue of turning back the boats. So why doesn’t Indonesia embrace the idea? It’s called politics.
In July 2012, I suggested in an Opinion piece, just the concept that Abbott has now undertaken, but with it being implemented with Indonesia’s support. In return for this support Australia could have contribute to the construction of processing centres in Indonesia so as to avoid asylum seekers ‘disappearing’ into the Indonesian community of 240 million people.
To achieve such an outcome would have taken an enormous amount of diplomacy at a time where relations between our two countries were ‘bumpy’ at best. The Indonesian government would have only considered this option if they could clearly demonstrate to their people that such an agreement wasn’t a case of the region’s ‘deputy sheriff’ - as President George Bush regretfully called us – simply pushing Indonesia around, and that such a program would not only benefit Australia and Indonesia, but would stop the evil people smuggler trade in people.
So we now ‘fast-forward’ to today where despite the rhetoric from the Abbott government about ‘close consultation’ and ‘good relations’ between his government and Indonesia, the reality is we are essentially ‘going it alone’ on the boat people issue by simply turning or towing back the boats. And it appears to be working, notwithstanding the revelation that Australia has actually breached Indonesia’s territorial waters in the process.
The question we need to ask however, is at what is the opportunity cost in terms of our relationship with Indonesia?
As our near neighbour enters the volatile and robust national election period - where political disillusionment seems to be sweeping the archipelago like a flood - we will need to manage the relationship with great care.
Both Indonesia and Australia need each other. Our joint efforts in counter-terrorism has been outstanding; our business-to-business relations, although very ‘underdone’ are strong; our joint co-operation on regional security issues in the region are critical to our own security as a small (by population) nation located in the middle of a very large and emerging Asia. And in the next ten to fifteen years Indonesia will add almost 80 million people to the ranks of ‘middle class’ and these people will want to travel and spend money on tourism, and on better food experiences (such as Australian beef for example) like the region has seen with the emergence of the Chinese middle-class phenomena.
So in taking such a tough line on turning back the boats our PM needs to ensure that he doesn’t ‘win the war’ on boat people at a cost of the broader relationship and opportunities with Indonesia.
The challenge therefore, is for our diplomats to demonstrate to the Indonesian leadership how such a tough stance on boat people will benefit not only Australia, but Indonesia, and then assist Indonesia in convincing their people to embrace such a policy without it being seen as being forced upon them by this new Australian government.
At the moment the sole focus of the PM and his government is to simply turn-back-the-boats at whatever the cost. And it appears that many of us within our community feel that achieving this outcome, at any cost to the bi-lateral relationship, is worthwhile.
Let’s hope that in five years when we look back, Mr Abbott was right.
Ross Taylor AM is the chairman of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)