Published September 25, 2013
Sydney (AFP) – Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott played down Indonesian opposition to his controversial refugee boat plans Thursday, and pledged to never "do or propose" anything that would impinge its sovereignty.
Abbott is due to travel to Jakarta next week ahead of the APEC summit for bilateral talks, which are likely to be dominated by his contentious military-led operation to turn asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia, a key staging point for the thousands of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia every year by boat.
The plan, Operation Sovereign Borders, has rankled Indonesia, with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa telling his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop on the sidelines of the UN this week that Jakarta "cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate sovereignty".
Abbott, who has kept a low profile since being sworn into office last week, downplayed Natalegawa's concerns on Thursday. "I'm not sure that's the case," he said when it was put to him that Indonesia saw his policies as an affront to their sovereignty.
He also stepped back from earlier rhetoric from Bishop suggesting that the new conservative Liberal-National government would not seek Indonesia's permission to implement its plans, which also include buying up fishing boats to keep them from the hands of people-smugglers, embedding Australian police in Indonesian villages and paying locals for intelligence.
"It's not a question of forcing anyone, it's a question of working very cooperatively and constructively with our neighbours to ensure that this terrible problem, not just for us but for our region, is addressed and stopped," Abbott told reporters.
"We absolutely respect Indonesia's sovereignty and we would never do or propose anything which is contrary to that," he added.
Abbott said the "important thing to remember is that Australia has a very good relationship with Indonesia", and the two had worked "very constructively" together in the past on the issue of people-smuggling.
"We are, even now, working very well together with the Indonesians, but we can do better in the future," Abbott said.
Bishop has described her talks with Natalegawa in New York as "very productive and positive", and said she was confident Abbott would be able to implement his policies.
Asked whether he had expressed displeasure at the proposals, Bishop said there "can be some misunderstanding as to what our policy is, and it is certainly not to, in any way, show disrespect for Indonesian sovereignty".
Though they arrive by boat in relatively small numbers by global standards -- some 13,000 in the first six months of this year -- asylum-seekers are a heated political issue in Australia, and one of Abbott's main campaign mantras was "Stop the Boats".