Abbott nails Jakarta


Abbott & SBY

Tony Abbott did handsomely in Jakarta. In just a few hours, he held frank but clearly warm private talks with President Yudhoyono, at a level of generality appropriate to discussion at head-of-government level. He delivered well-tempered public messages of apology and Australian respect for Indonesian sovereignty at the subsequent state dinner.

The major cloud that had hung over the visit in its last preparatory days — the vexed issue of intemperate Australian responses to uncontrolled asylum-seeker boat departures from Indonesia — was deftly dispelled.

We know little about the private talks apart from what was reported as said by the two leaders in their subsequent brief joint press appearance. Abbott was fulsome on his respect for Indonesian sovereignty. He said they had agreed that people smuggling issues needed to be discussed bilaterally as well as in the Bali Process multilateral context. Fairfax's Michael Bachelard described this as an Indonesian concession. I think this was more a courteous olive-branch. 

The envisaged bilateral talks between Scott Morrison and his Indonesian counterpart won't shake the parameters established of pledged Australian respect for Indonesian sovereignty on the people smuggling issue. Morrison will have little if any room to press in these subsidiary-level 'technical' talks the kinds of unreasonable demands of Indonesia that he and Alexander Downer have been publicly articulating in Australia in recent weeks. 

I doubt that there will be any more attempts by Australian ships operating under Operation Sovereign Borders orders to take passengers from intercepted boats back to the Indonesian 12 mile limit, as happened twice last week. OSB ships will also now patrol further back from the Indonesian contiguous zone, as they used to under the previous Labor governments. Australian-organised rescues of boats reporting distress will still take place in these international waters that are in the Indonesian search and rescue zone, but there will be less bullying of the under-resourced Indonesian search and rescue agency BASARNAS to take control of those rescues. 

Hopefully, there will be fewer deaths as a result. Both sides will want to move on from the three disturbing events of last week (two imposed returns of boat passengers, and one tragic sinking).

Nor are we likely to hear much more about Australia buying boats or buying information about people smuggling in Indonesia. Both proposals were sharp affronts to Indonesian sovereignty. 

Morrison and Downer lost last night, but Australia didn't. The national interest will be well served by the PM's deft handling of a difficult situation. Abbott, bolstered by the presence of an authoritative Australian business delegation, was able convincingly to pitch the message that the bilateral relationship is much bigger and more important than the people smuggling issue, which he implicitly admitted had been mishandled by Australia.

He did not say this in so many words in public: in fact his approach was quite Javanese in its subtlety. In apologising for past Australian policy errors on the beef trade curtailment and restarting the people-smuggler trade, he made indirect apology for Australian heavy-handed rhetoric on people smuggling — a point the Indonesians well understood and graciously accepted. 

Finally, a word on Operation Sovereign Borders. The second weekly media conference held yesterday saw a well-detailed Australian rescue response timeline by Admiral Binskin, the acting CEO of OSB. Binskin's timeline reflected well on the agencies concerned, primarily the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Following a very early morning phonecall to Australian police from a concerned relative in Australia who had been phoned from the boat, agencies moved quickly to establish the boat's coordinates and mobilise rescue responses. BASARNAS was asked to take charge but declined. The fact that the boat had moved (drifted?) quite quickly back into a position 8nm from the Java shore, in shallow waters, limited what AMSA could do to help. The boat's final tragic foundering was in waves just 50m from shore. Many women and children died. 

Still puzzling are multiple first-hand survivor accounts of many calls made 'to the embassy' over up to 26 hours before the sinking. Though Binskin said firmly that Australian Embassy in Jakarta records had been checked and there was no record of any such calls, I do not think these bereaved and distraught survivors had reason to lie. I think somebody was called. Possibly, another number not part of the embassy call recording system. FOI enquiries may in time elucidate more on this.

As to the two returned boatloads of passengers from two intercepted and subsequently destroyed boats, by HMAS Ballarat on Thursday and ACV Triton on Friday, Morrison refused to give any operational details. We know in the first case there were distress calls. We don't know if there were in the second case. Possibly the commander of Triton assessed the intercepted boat on the high seas as unseaworthy — he would be entitled under maritime law to make that judgement. Again, FOI may establish the facts here. 

Leaving the two passenger groups at Indonesia's 12nm limit was an ill-judged move, provocative and demeaning to Indonesia. OSB is lucky the Indonesians cooperated. There is no surety that they will do so again, after last night's successful outcome in Jakarta. In effect, I predict, Operation Sovereign Borders will quietly revert to similar operating procedures as for Border Protection Command and AMSA before the change of government. Thank you for sorting this out, Prime Minister, in the national interest. 

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin's most recent book is Reluctant Rescuers (2012). His previous publication on refugee boat tragedy — A Certain Maritime Incident — was the recipient of a NSW Premier's literary award in 2005.

Topic tags: Tony Abbott, Indonesia, people smugglers, Jakarta, Scott Morrison, Alexander Downer



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Existing comments

Under International law helping refugees is zero to do with people smuggling as crossing borders to seek asylum is quite legal.

Marilyn | 01 October 2013  

Why did you change your heading?

HFA | 01 October 2013  

One can but hope that Tony Kevin is right when he suggests that following the Jakarta meeting, operational procedures over addressing 'the boat problem' will moderate. Bellicose rhetoric prior to the 7th September always did have little more than electioneering about it but moderation or not, stopping boats in international waters still holds significant scope for Australians contravening international law in the name of Australians. If one believes an end justifies the means then so be it but the world is full of examples where law has been disregarded in the name of a cause, including by governments but eventually, inevitably, the price is paid. Usually by the innocent.

Peter Harvey | 01 October 2013  

Not sure why the author believes that 'returns' will stop. Indonesian crews are breaching Australian borders - simple as that - and the government knows it.

John | 01 October 2013  

Nice photo? Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate presumably had a close relationship. It is likely that Caiaphas and Pilate had standing arrangements for how to deal with subversive persons such as Jesus.

karen | 02 October 2013  

I wonder if Tony Kevin was aware of the primary dictionary definition of 'fulsome' when he used that word to describe the manner of the Prime Minister's respect. The Macquarie: 'offensive to good taste, especially as being excessive; gushing, insincere'.

Jonathan Shaw | 02 October 2013  

I wonder what was promised? What is it Indonesia wants from us that the government would be willing to trade.

robyn lewis | 02 October 2013  

Alleluia! Alleluia!! Mr Kevin appears to have turned right onto the road to Damascus.

john frawley | 02 October 2013  

It is interesting to read Tony Kevin's fulsome praise of the Prime Minister's recent meeting with the President of Indonesia. His addendum, in the third and second last paragraphs of this article, which seem to indicate he will be lodging a FOI request regarding supposed messages from the sinking boats to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, seems to me to hint that Mr Kevin is angling either to be taken as a serious commentator nationally, or for some sort of position on a forthcoming inquiry body which the government might set up, the sort of position he has previously declared himself available for under the former government in ES. I think he may be in the process of being gazumped and his advocacy rendered unnecessary as the new situation unfolds.

Edward Fido | 02 October 2013  

HFA asked, 'Why did you change your heading?' I ask: What does the heading mean? To nail someone suggests that you defeat that person in argument. After all his harsh statements about turning boats back to Indonesia, buying boats from Indonesian fishermen, and paying Indonesians to spy on alleged people smugglers, Tony Abbott did the right thing - he toned down his aggressive language, assured President Yudhoyono of Australia's respect for Indonesia's sovereignty and indirectly apologised for his harsh language during the election campaign. No 'nailing' of Indonesia there!

Ian Fraser | 02 October 2013  

Hopefully some humanity will come from this visit, which clearly demonstrated a balanced dialogue - business, trade and assistance will no doubt be of detailed interest.

Brian Goodall | 02 October 2013  

Pres. Yudhoyono will not be around next year and so Abbott will have to deal wiith a new Indonesian leader. Hopefully, he will be as tolerant and bemused during Labor's governance and cooperative towards the new coalition government. Until things are put in writing and made public, whatever "agreement" that Abbott may have scored is still all talk and posturing. People smuggling is a very lucrative business and is as organized as any profitale business enterprise. Until the "godfathers" of this enterprise are convicted, sadly their business will continue to flourish. Could this be what Abbott and Yudhoyono agreed to undertake?

jan | 02 October 2013  

Thanks for this overview Tony. Two questions: Why is, BASARNAS under-resourced? So many died in sight of the Indonesian shore. Is this not a topic for bilateral discussions toward that 'regional solution'? I agree trying to bully is no answer, but neither is so many deaths. Are there regional/central government issues here that we don't understand? Second: In your view what was the aim of the leaked discussions between FM Bishop and the Indonesians?

Jan Forrester | 02 October 2013  

I cannot quite fathom where Tony is coming from. He starts out by saying that Abbott "did handsomely" and "defty dispelled" (the intemperate response) but ends up by saying that the outcome of the talks was "lucky". He finishes by suggesting that OSB will be dropped, ergo back to square 1. Abbott had to eat humble pie when he kept on repeating that Australia would not breach Indonesia's sovereignty. Really! Surely not even he would contemplate that being part of turn back the boats policy (or did he?) Why should Indonesia take back the asylum seekers, especially if they are not Indonesian? Maybe Naru is more preferable than the risk of death in Lebanon or Sri Lanka.

Tom | 02 October 2013  

Let's see how quick the brown fox will jump over the lazy dog?

Alex Njoo | 02 October 2013  

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