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Tony Abbott says boats issue with Indonesia a 'passing irritant'

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Judith Ireland, Megan Levy

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Tony's Indonesia challenge

Tony Abbott's 1st overseas trip as Prime Minister looms as a tough one with critical neighbour Indonesia opposed to the new PM's 'tow back' plan for asylum boats.

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has moved to calm the waters with Indonesia on the issue of asylum seeker boats, insisting that Australia has a ''strong and close'' relationship with its neighbour and that his government would never do anything foolish.

Mr Abbott's comments come ahead of a planned meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono next week and amid an escalating war of words between Australia and Indonesia on the boats issue.

Asylum seeker talks made public: Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop met with Minister for Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, Dr Marty Natalegawa, in New York earlier this week.

Asylum seeker talks made public: Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop met with Minister for Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, Dr Marty Natalegawa, in New York earlier this week. Photo: Trevor Collens

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has taken the unusual step of releasing a detailed statement about his meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop earlier this week, which shows him warning the Abbott government against taking any "unilateral steps" which would risk "cooperation and trust" between the two countries.

Ms Bishop, who has been in New York all week representing Australia at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, unusually refused a request to speak to world media after her landmark role, prompting speculation she was unwilling to face potential questions on the increasing tensions with Indonesia. 

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer has also weighed into the debate, arguing it is Australia's sovereignty that is threatened by asylum seeker vessels. On ABC TV on Thursday, Mr Downer  said that Indonesia bore a "heavy responsibility" for boat arrivals and was using "pious rhetoric" on the issue.

The Indonesian foreign ministry and the Ambassador to Australia have both since issued statements saying the meeting transcript was not intended to be issued or reported as a press release, because the meeting was private.

The Indonesian government "stands ready to work with each Australian government and all its political stakeholders to ensure that the best interests of both are people are fulfilled".

On Friday in an interview with Fairfax Radio, Mr Abbott insisted that Australia's relationship with Indonesia was strong - painting the boats issue as merely a ''passing irritant''.

''We have a strong and close relationship with Indonesia,'' he said.

''The last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn't show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia's sovereignty.''

Mr Abbott said his government would not do ''foolish things'' with respect to Indonesia.

''The last thing that anyone should want is to have Australia's relationship with Indonesia defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant.''

The Prime Minister also distanced himself from the remarks made by his former cabinet colleague, Mr Downer.

''Alexander is Alexander. And I'm now the Prime Minister of our country, and I am charged with building the closest possible relationship with Indonesia.''

Acting opposition leader and former immigration minister Chris Bowen said the Indonesian government has made its position ''crystal clear'' that they regard the Abbott government's plans as ''an affront''.

''Asian diplomacy in particular is marked by understatement... this is what makes it such an extraordinary development,'' Mr Bowen told ABC TV on Thursday night. ''It's an unprecedented step by an Indonesian foreign minister, I can't recall an Indonesian foreign minister taking a step like this in relation to Australia ever before.''

Indonesia needs to 'accept' some responsbility

When asked how many asylum seekers had arrived in Australia since he was made Prime Minister, Mr Abbott did not give an exact figure but said he thought there had been ''a couple of hundred'' since he was sworn in on September 18.

''The key change since the swearing in ... is that now anyone who gets here illegally by boat is out of the country to Nauru or Manus within 48 hours and they're never coming back.''

Under a new policy introduced by the Coalition, the government no longer announces each boat as it arrives, leaving updates to a weekly media briefing.

However, it has been reported that another boat arrived at Christmas Island on Thursday, carrying about 80 people.

On Friday morning, Mr Downer continued his blunt criticism of Indonesia's role in the people-smuggling trade, and said Australia shouldn't allow ''ourselves to be bullied by the Indonesians in this way''.

Mr Downer said the Indonesian government needed to accept some responsibility for the people-smuggling problem.

''They do have to understand that it's their boats with their crews, their flagged boats,  which are breaking our sovereignty and are breaking our law by transgressing our national borders, our maritime borders,'' Mr Downer told Fairfax Radio.

''When we say we'd like to turn back the boats, they need to understand, and they need to understand very clearly, that it is ... their people who are breaking our law and I think they have to be told this very directly.

''There's no point in allowing ourselves to be bullied by the Indonesians in this way. I mean, we have to stand up for ourselves and stand up for our national interest and be prepared to call it as it is. I can understand the [Australian] government not doing that, but since I'm not part of the government, I'm quite happy to.''

With Michael Bachelard, AAP

509 comments

  • Only passing irritant apparently. Read: not important, i.e. doesn't matter what any other country thinks, I just want want this problem to go away so that I can "Stop The Boats".

    Commenter
    GitL
    Location
    Bris
    Date and time
    September 27, 2013, 10:22AM
    • Yes, only a passing irritant. Funny, isn't it? Under Labor, any boat issue is a disaster, the economy and the budget is in crisis. As soon as he is in, relax everybody. All is well. Just be calm. I need to visit a factory and don some bright colored shirt and help them pack something first. If anyone think the last 6 years was bad under Labor, they are going to experience what 'bad' really is soon.

      Commenter
      Tom Tit Tot
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 10:35AM
    • How relaxed and comfortable is this Tony guy now? Doesn't even know the number of arrivals himself. A vague 'couple of hundred'.

      Some numbers the Govt need to remember and be accountable for.

      50,000 illegal arrivals, 1 million legally in same time. Only a passing irritant actually

      $400 billion deficit equals $180 billion in reality. No budget emergancy.

      NBN equals $90 billion according to malcolmturnbull.com.au, although latest audit suggests it's still on track for $37 billion.

      $75,000 for a rich women to have her baby.

      $1.2 billion so rich executives can rort the FBT.

      $1200 schoolkid bonus from each family.

      $2.3 billion to reduce Australia's carbon emissions by 5%. Pie in the sky

      1 woman in cabinet.

      30,000 voters change their mind and ALP win govt next time.

      We could go on and of course but Tony doesn't think real numbers really matter anymore.

      Commenter
      GOV
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 10:46AM
    • it may well turn out that the 'passing irritant' is actually Abbott ... he's certainly on track for the shortest honeymoon ever ...

      Commenter
      juileep
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 10:52AM
    • Funny. Since when did the boats pass from "NATIONAL EMERGENCY!!!111one" to a mild "passing irritant". Flip flopping again, Tony?

      Commenter
      Aussie Capitalist
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 10:54AM
    • Regardless of what Indonesia says - we have the right to protect our borders. Since the boats come form Indonesia - Indonesia should be stopping them. If they don't or choose to ignore this issue - then it is up to us to stop them. Cut all aid to Indonesia and spend that money on redirecting all the boats back to their shores.....they need to stop playing us for a patsy & stop profiting from invading our borders. This is why we elected the new gov't because we are tired of being played for fools while our neighbours profit from an illegal arrangement.

      Commenter
      john
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:02AM
    • Reda the article, not the heading which The Age continually manipulates to fuel anti-Coalition sentiment. He never said refugee boats was a passing irritant but the tense discussion between Indonesia and AUstralia. Very different.

      Commenter
      George
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:02AM
    • Yep. More Abbott Ipsum defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant. And so on.......

      Commenter
      Nonrev
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:03AM
    • I thought the boats had stopped. I mean if they don't tell the media that boats have come than they mustn't have come right? And even of those pesky Christmas Islanders do tell the world then the government aren't going to confirm it are they? Make the problem disappear, use friends ownership of media to continue to distract while the true agenda gets pushed through. People have been calling him one term tony, I think a better name would be the invisible man. He hid away in his cave for almost two weeks before coming out to sprout more three word slogans. The election is over Tony although I can understand if you haven't worked that out yet. That arts degree in economics theory must have done you wonders.

      Commenter
      John Michaels
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:07AM
    • Boat Arrivals = 10 (Approx no)
      Boat Turnbacks = NONE
      Coalition Promises Broken (Just on Boats) = 10

      Commenter
      Sam
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:08AM

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