Tony Abbott has been Prime Minister barely a month and his single, constantly bleated promise to “turn back the boats” looks like it’s hit a diplomatic iceberg.

Though the pictures are pretty and the talk is of “constructive” and “frank” dialogue between Tony Abbott and Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, what to do to about desperate asylum seekers, taking desperate measures to find a new and safe life, remains unresolved.



The first bilateral talks this week between the new Australian government and Indonesia were always going to be difficult.

Before and since Tony Abbott’s thumping victory on September 7th, the Indonesians have made it perfectly clear that they see the Abbott government’s policy of turning back the boats as an affront to their sovereignty and neglectful of Australia’s international obligations at a time when there are millions of asylum seekers looking for refuge.

There’s been more than a few statements from the Indonesian government that towing back the boats (not to mention “buying the boats”) is seen as an arrogant and alarming display of disrespect for Australia’s populous neighbour, the biggest of the ASEAN nations.

Before and since the election, the Coalition has made it clear that it doesn’t believe it needs Indonesia’s blessing to implement its policies.

But turning back the boats, one of the Coalition’s core election promises, would certainly require Indonesia’s agreement.

It’s a policy prime minister Abbott will find impossible to get Indonesian agreement to carry out and hard to turn his back on at home.

Along with the daily refrain that he would stop the boats, the then opposition leader would stand in front of portable boat-number-crunching boards berating the Gillard government which daily told us about the thousands of needy people making their way to Australia, and too often losing their lives in the process.

Given the Indonesian government’s complaints, making the arrivals disappear from view clearly looked like a reasonable option. There’ll be no more daily pronouncements.

Not unsurprisingly, Tony Abbott wanted to turn his visit to Jakarta, his first overseas jaunt as PM, into a diplomatic triumph – on business and trade, on agriculture and on relationship building.

But try as he did to shift the focus, it remained firmly on asylum seekers.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer didn’t help. He told Mr Abbott quite publicly there was “no point sweeping under the carpet the issue of boats”.

Even business was alarmed at how the “turn back the boats” policy might be diplomatically resolved.

As ANZ CEO Mike Smith was making his way to Jakarta to take part in a large business delegation to support Tony Abbott, he warned that “quite clearly the boat people issue needs to be addressed.”

“The most important thing is to ensure it does not derail the important trade, economic and investment issues which should be at the front of the agenda,” Mr Smith added.

The warnings from here and there were coming thick and fast.

Still, Mr Abbott walked like a leader with his head in the sand. His refusal to comment about the latest boat sinking horrified many.

Some 80 desperate people were on that boat, bound for Australia, when it struck trouble just 50 metres from the shore of a remote area near West Java on Thursday.

Twenty-one washed ashore dead. Only 28 have been rescued, and many of the dead and missing are children. The survivors say they called Australian authorities for help even though they were in Indonesian waters.

“We called the Australian government for 24 hours, they were telling us ‘we’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming,’ and they didn’t come,” one of the survivors told ABC news.

“We sent them the position on the GPS, exactly where are we, and we drowned and nobody came.”

sad man who lost everything

This man lost his whole family.

“This is because of the Australian government. I want them to know that.”

Immigration minister Scott Morrison, fronting one of the now weekly media conferences to talk boat arrivals, emphasized the boat capsized in Indonesian territory and added:

“I also wish to stress that there has been no change to how Australia responds to search-and-rescue incidents operationally.”

In other words, if a boat capsizes in our waters, we respond. If it doesn’t, we don’t lift a finger regardless of the possible loss of life.

After his meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Mr Abbott said he respected Indonesia’s sovereignty about which there were “frank” discussions. But hard as it seems to believe, the “turn back the boats” policy was not discussed.

That iceberg is left to Indonesia’s foreign minister Djoko Suyanto and immigration minister Scott Morrison to steer clear of some time in the future.

In the meantime, the boats will continue making their way to Australia and we may or may not hear about them with the government’s new selective communications black out.

“Turn back the boats” may just disappear in the fog.

If it does, it won’t be because the iceberg has melted or diplomacy has triumphed.

It will be because there comes a time when every new new prime minister sees the vast and dangerous gulf between sloganeering in opposition and the responsibilities that come with high office.



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Cease” and “Desist” on the Boats?
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Monica Attard*Monica Attard OAM is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She’s also the lucky recipient of an Order of Australia for services to journalism. Monica has hosted the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch as well as Sunday Profile. She spent 28 years at the ABC, during which time she was the corporation’s Russia correspondent reporting the collapse of communism. That experience led her to write a book, Russia: Which Way Paradise? which was published in 1997. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.

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