Tony Abbott, seen in a different light

VITAL TIES: New Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margie at a wreath-laying ceremony at Kalibata Heroes' Cemetery in Jakarta yesterday. He will meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his two-day visit in his first overseas trip as he seeks to bolster ties with Asia.


    Oct 01, 2013

    Tony Abbott, seen in a different light

    LET me tell you a story about Mr Tony Abbott, the new Australian Prime Minister. In October 2005, Mr Abbott, who was then health minister, and his wife and daughters were holidaying at a modest three-star resort in Bali's Legian. The second Bali bombing took place, killing more than two dozen people, among them several Australians.

    At first, nobody could get him because his mobile phone didn't have global roaming. When he heard of the bombing the next day, he went to the hospital and stayed for 15 hours, helping where he could.

    Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the hospital, but Mr Abbott made himself scarce while the President was there.

    I tell the story only to indicate that Mr Abbott is a much more complex and interesting politician than the media stereotypes, and the attacks of his opponents suggest.

    As a journalist, it is not my job to be an advocate for my government. As it happens, Mr Abbott has been a friend of mine for nearly 40 years. But I'm happy to criticise him over the many things I disagree with him about.

    But I can't fault him on his attitude to Indonesia. At the weekend, he remarked that Indonesia was "in many respects our most important relationship".

    He tried to put the recent controversies over people smuggling in context: "Indonesia is a land of promise for us and we do not want the relationship to be defined by boats." So, what about boats?

    He, like Mr Kevin Rudd before him, wants to stop people arriving illegally by boat. Since Mr Rudd scrapped Mr John Howard's tough policies on this in 2008, well over 50,000 people had come to Australia this way.

    And 50,000 today will be several hundred thousand in a few years if this route remains viable.

    This is not only bad for Australia but also for Indonesia, as a certain number of illegal immigrants are attracted to Indonesia solely to get to Australia.

    Indonesians have legitimate complaints against Canberra over the last few years. Suspending the live-cattle export trade, with no advance notice to Jakarta, was a ghastly mistake by our previous government.

    It threatened Indonesian food security, devastated our reputation as a reliable supplier and damaged the long-held Canberra position that the best way to secure necessities is through the operations of open markets.

    Similarly, when Mr Rudd abolished Mr Howard's border-control policies, he started a new, big trade in people smuggling.

    Australia and Indonesia should be partners in stopping people smuggling, which damages both our nations. Mr Abbott's proposal to turn boats back where safe is a policy carried out by numerous other countries, including the United States, with illegal immigrants from the Caribbean; and Sri Lanka, which turns back its own illegal emigrants. It is a tough policy, but not anti-Indonesian.

    Some other parts of Mr Abbott's policies were either foolish, or foolish to announce. Paying villagers for information, and even buying boats that might otherwise be used for people smuggling, can be carried out only by Indonesian police in Indonesian territory.

    They are at most marginal measures that authorised police officers in the field might take.

    But perhaps Indonesians can forgive these isolated bits of ill-advised policy. I would ask my Indonesian friends to keep an open mind about our new prime minister.

    The writer is foreign editor of The Australian. This analysis is excerpted from his article published in The Jakarta Post yesterday.