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Abbott nails Jakarta

By Tony Kevin - posted Thursday, 3 October 2013

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.

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This article was first published on Eureka Street. Tony 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.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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