The failure of ‘turn back the boats’

Peter Alford has a story in today’s Oz outlining how the Indonesian government will not be party to the Abbott government’s “tow back” policy. While some, such as Greg Sheridan, may consider this policy “normal maritime practice“, it is obviously anything but. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s pragmatic understanding of how the world works was highlighted better here than on many other issues. At the very beginning of her Prime Ministership, she spoke of how turning boats back was not an option:

“The Howard Government’s actions changed because of a change in the practical reality, and the reality that confronted Prime Minister Howard confronts us today: the reality that to avoid being turned around boats are sabotaged raising safety of life at sea concerns for Australia’s customs and border protection and defence personnel as well as the asylum seekers on board.”

These people will seemingly end up on Nauru, Manus Island or Christmas Island and they will be taken there by the Australian Navy despite currently being in Indonesia’s defined search and rescue zone (crucially, the boat appears to be outside of Indonesian territory).  At a macro-level, this shows how seeking pragmatic policy is much harder than it initial appears. Time and people will dictate policy change, as has occurred since the early 2000s.

The policy is already a failure, rather than ‘under pressure’ as the title of the story claims.  Further, it is actively damaging regional foreign relationships for no apparent gain. There is no excuse for the Abbott government. The ALP, as well as a host of international and regional security experts, questioned the merits and capacity of such a policy repeatedly over the past three years. If Scott Morrison is confident he is already on top of the policy of asylum seekers, you wonder why this particular part of the policy is even being considered?

Lastly, I want to focus on how Peter Alford framed this story. His first paragraph reads:

“INDONESIA has drawn a line through the Abbott government’s turn-back-the-boats policy, with senior ministers saying Jakarta had no obligation to take back asylum-seekers picked up at sea by Australia unless lives were at risk.”

It is true Indonesia has refused to accept these people. However implying Indonesia is the crucial participant is wrong. This is Australian government policy, not Indonesian government policy. Any policy requiring the cooperation of two countries cannot exist unless it has been agreed to previously. It certainly seems as if the Indonesian government has not agreed to such a policy, and thus it shouldn’t even have been in operation.

Alford then brazenly raises the stakes later in the article:

Dr Natalegawa’s open distaste for hardline aspects of the Coalition’s border security policies has been one of the main factors in the deterioration of political relations since the Australian election in September.”

I do not believe it is Dr Natalegawa’s “open distaste” for Australian policies that are causing the deterioration in the relationship. Rather it appears to be the implementation of new border security policies without the cooperation of a required neighbour which is causing such angst.

Update, 1pm 9/11/2013: It appears Navy have escorted the boat to Christmas Island.  Key quote:

“The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies by Australia,” said Indonesian coordinating minister for security, Djoko Suyanto to the ABC on Friday. “We have expressed this point of view since the Rudd government and there are no changes in our policy in relation to asylum seekers who want to go to Australia in the current Tony Abbott Government. Australia already has its own detention centres in Nauru and PNG so they should send these asylum seekers … [there] NOT to Indonesia.”

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