Australian lawmaker links trade dispute with asylum seekers

Australia's deputy prime minister has come under fire for suggesting that a temporary ban on cattle exports to Indonesia five years ago hindered ties with Jakarta that contributed to an influx of asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores by boats from Indonesia.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce linked the 2011 events during a campaign debate on agricultural policies Wednesday night ahead of elections on July 2. Australia suspended its live cattle trade to Indonesia for a month in June 2011 over cruelty concerns in Indonesian slaughterhouses.

"When we closed down the live animal export industry, it was around about the same time that we started seeing a lot of people arriving in boats in Australia," Joyce said, prompting jeers at a public meeting in the rural town of Goulburn. "I think it's absolutely the case that we created extreme bad will with Indonesia when we close down the live animal export."

Joyce is the first Australian official to suggest the suspension undermined Indonesian efforts to prevent people smugglers trafficking asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Australia.

The Indonesian Embassy denied any link between beef trade and asylum seeker issues. It said in a statement that Jakarta was committed to being part of a regional solution to the problem of people-smuggling.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten, whose center-left Labor Party was in power at the time of the export ban, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that Joyce was "talking rubbish."

"It's a really, really ignorant remark," Shorten said. "When he starts weighing into foreign policy, I think he should best leave that to the grown-ups in the room."

Joyce attempted to clarify his comments on Thursday.

"I'm not saying that this caused the Indonesians to start sending people across — I never suggested that," Joyce, who is also agriculture minister, told Seven Network television. "What I did clearly suggest is that it made it difficult — it gave a real degree of difficulty — in how we negotiate with Indonesia."

When the current government was elected in 2013, it introduced tough new policies that have prevented smugglers from successfully delivering asylum seekers to Australia for more than 18 months. But some policies have raised the ire of Indonesians who object to the Australian navy turning boats back to Indonesian waters as an affront to Indonesian sovereignty.