Turning back the boats means dumping the problem on Indonesia ... this wooden boat, enroute to Australia carrying 70 people, sank in November 2011 near West Java, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters
THE pledge of Tony Abbott's Coalition to make relations with our largest neighbour Indonesia a centrepiece of its foreign policy is a welcome one. But it will backfire on the Coalition if it thinks it can stride into Jakarta and tell the Indonesians how things should be done.
An early warning has come during the visit by its foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, to Indonesia, where an influential politician has denounced her party's promise to ''turn back the boats'' as arrogant. The deputy chairman of parliament, Hajriyanto Thohari, reminded us that turning back the boats means dumping the problem on Indonesia. That is, assuming the boats and their passengers make it safely back to Indonesian shores.
Our navy chiefs are already indicating their grave misgivings about the policy, which will inevitably lead to more cases of refugees sabotaging their boats. This puts lives at more risk, including those of our own sailors whose duty as mariners is to save life in peril. The policy has been tried, and has failed, under a previous Coalition government and should not be resurrected.
Which is not to say Australia cannot expect more results against people smuggling from greater co-operation with Indonesia. The example of the highly successful joint campaigns against terrorism illustrate the possibilities of closer liaison in intelligence, training and resources. As south-east Asia's two largest Muslim nations, Indonesia and Malaysia are natural stepping stones for the major sources of asylum seekers in western Asia. They are edging closer to full adherence to refugee treaties, and will move closer with more help from destination countries like Australia. We might expect them to tighten up their scrutiny of visas on entry, but it is unrealistic to expect that many intending refugees will still not manage to pass as tourists and other visitors.
Meanwhile, the federal Attorney-General's decision to review the cases of 24 ''people-smugglers'' currently imprisoned in Australia, some of whom may be children, is very welcome. As Nicola Roxon says, minors don't belong in adult jails. If Australians want Indonesia to show mercy towards young Australians lured into drug trafficking while abroad, and concentrate on the kingpins in people trafficking, they will have to show more understanding towards young Indonesians lured into this callous business and placed in as much danger as their passengers.
Lead by example in the arts
AS THE budget nears with its artificial requirement for a surplus, the public is being softened up about what to expect. Buybacks of Murray-Darling basin water rights and defence equipment purchases may be delayed; taxes on superannuation are under scrutiny, along with Medicare rebates for some cosmetic surgery. And, as we reported yesterday, Simon Crean's national cultural policy, which was to have been announced with the budget, is to be postponed.
The last arts statement, Creative Nation, sought 20 years ago to place arts funding within an economic framework of arts-based industries, including film and television. The new statement is intended to reformulate government arts policy to take into account developments such as the internet and the national broadband network. It is also said to encourage private philanthropy for the arts. These are obvious and useful changes.
Government support for the arts always seems optional when budgets are under pressure. Some will argue governments have no role as arts patrons, and that for determining the way a culture freely expresses itself, the power should rest with the marketplace. Recent profit announcements from arts companies would seem to bolster this line of thinking. The Sydney Festival, the Sydney Symphony and the Australian Chamber Orchestra are all doing well (though the Sydney Theatre Company has had an off year). If even so-called elite arts organisations are managing to stand on their own feet - for now - need governments do more?
And yet governments sideline the arts and withdraw from the nation's cultural life at their own peril, as well as ours. An easy way to create a buzz around a country or state is to encourage its most creative individuals to give of their best. The opposite is also true. The new Queensland government's decision to cut the Premier's literary award immediately signalled to the rest of the country a reduction in optimism north of the Tweed, a return to low expectations, a downsizing of enthusiasm and self-belief. The NSW government has wisely avoided similar penny-pinching, but in grouping the arts portfolio with tourism, hospitality and racing, it has probably expressed its own priorities eloquently enough.
The national government should not go down this path. As the economy negotiates the stresses of a fundamental adjustment, this should be a time of cultural engagement and exploration. That cannot be achieved by government fiat or patronage alone, but the exploration of who we are as a society and where we are going will not happen without it either. And if the government wants to encourage philanthropy to fund the arts, it should lead by example.