There are a number of ways to interpret Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s failure to raise his asylum seeker ‘tow back’ proposal in his meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but none of them are positive. In short, the ‘town back’ proposal was – and in so far as it continues to be defended by Opposition speakers – remains a policy disaster.
In a political contest increasingly characterised by who has the metaphorically hairiest chest, ‘Tow Back Tony’ has been a tough-guy par excellence. Not only had Mr Abbott taken the hardest line on asylum seekers, he went that one step further by not just saying that a government under his leadership would implement asylum seeker deterrent policies but it would physically take asylum seeker boats back to the territorial waters they came from.
The underlying assumption about this position – if one puts aside the unresolved humanitarian issues around blaming refugees for being refugees – is that asylum seekers are Indonesia’s problem, not Australia’s. However, given that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers who transit via Indonesia intend to come to Australia, the Indonesian government has a rather different view.
For Indonesia, with its highly porous borders and myriad problems with immigration, emigration, corrupt officials and still limited capacity to deter ‘unregulated migration’, it feels at best the victim in this sorry saga. As a gesture of goodwill, however, it has accepted that boat-borne asylum seekers are a regional problem and not, as they effectively are, Australia’s problem.
So, the proposal that Australian naval vessels return to Indonesian waters boats bound for Australia is an affront at a number of levels. It assumes the problem is Indonesia’s alone, that Indonesia has the capacity to deal with unregulated immigration and that its navy has the capacity to rescue people from often unseaworthy craft on the verge of sinking. It also assumes a lack of humanitarianism that, despite what some cynics might suggest, informs much of the thinking of Indonesia’s political leaders.
The proposal also assumes that Australia’s potentially next government intends to conduct bilateral relations in a unilateral manner and, most of all, that it is okay to be gratuitously undiplomatic to a regional power for domestic political purposes. To suggest that implementing such a policy would strain diplomatic relations puts the matter mildly. This has been the view in Indonesia since the ‘tow back’ policy was first announced. Interestingly, however, this otherwise comes at a time when Australia and Indonesia are enjoying their best ever bilateral relations.
It is unusual, if not entirely unheard of, for government leaders to meet with visiting Opposition leaders, particularly so with Indonesia. President Yudhoyono’s agreeing to meet with Mr Abbott, then, perhaps acknowledged both the strength of the overall relationship and that Mr Abbott could next year be Australia’s prime minister. But even with a potential future prime minister, President Yudhoyono would have at least wanted the meeting to be as trouble-free as possible.
So, when Mr Abbotts minders spoke with President Yudhoyono’s minders about arranging a meeting, they would have discussed matters to be addressed. This is conventional diplomatic practice and helps ensure that no embarrassing issues are raised.
Avoiding difficult issues is also entirely consistent with President Yudhoyono’s Javanese cultural tradition. As has previously been noted in analysis of Australia-Indonesia relations, Australia’s cultural and political traditions, in some senses exemplified by Mr Abbott’s somewhat blunt and confrontational style, are the opposite of Javanese preferred halus (polite and refined) behaviour. Direct or confronting discussion is regarded as culturally coarse in Indonesia and as diplomatically offensive more generally.
Thus, in the discussion between minders, it is very likely to have been made clear that President Yudhoyono did not want to discuss the asylum seeker ‘tow back’ policy. The Opposition’s Foreign affairs spokesman Julie Bishop said that she and Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison later had ‘broad ranging discussions’ with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. However, when asked whether the ‘tow back’ policy was discussed, Ms Bishop said she would not talk about the matter through the ‘megaphone’ of the media. Mr Natalegawa only said that he had learned more of the details of the Opposition’s plans.
Following the government’s criticism of Mr Abbott for failing to raise the ‘tow back’ issue, he later said that Ms Bishop and Mr Morrison did raise the subject with Mr Natalegawa, which then raises two further issues.
The first issue is that within a context where Ms Bishop said it was not diplomatically appropriate to discuss the detail of the meeting, Mr Abbott has decided that rebuffing government criticism is more important than his own Foreign spokesman’s diplomatic sensibility. The second issue is that if the issue was raised, it appears that Mr Natalegawa did not respond positively.
Conventionally, when there is agreement on a diplomatic issue, the parties to it will arrive at a form of words to publically express that agreement.
That is, if the ‘tow back’ issue was raised at this second level, it appears that it did not lead to Indonesia’s agreement. Knowing that the ‘tow back’ policy would be unlikely to produce agreement and being relegated to second-tier status where it was, at best, noted, if Mr Abbott had persisted with the proposal, President Yudhoyono would undoubtedly have ended the meeting.
So, rather than court a greater and more embarrassing problem, Mr Abbott avoided the issue altogether. Given that Indonesia is very unlikely to agree to such a policy, if Mr Abbott becomes prime minister after the next election, it is likely that he will continue to avoid it.
To do otherwise, after this quiet rebuff, would be to plunge Australia-Indonesia relations back to the lowest of their previous depths. Wrecking a very strong and important bilateral relationship is not what any Australian prime minister would desire.
The ‘tow back’ policy, then, can now be expected to be quietly side-lined. Mr Abbott will, meanwhile, be likely reflecting on just being given a lesson in Diplomacy 101.