Despite talks, chances slim to slow the boats


Julia Gillard’s planned meeting with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono next week offers an opportunity for some fresh thinking on the familiar, but rapidly growing, problem of unauthorised boat arrivals and deaths at sea.

But the chances of a breakthrough are slim for several reasons, including the complexity of the problem and the very different perspectives the two nations have.

Indonesia is a transit country with a population of 240 million and an average per capita income less than a tenth of the average in Australia, a destination country of just 23 million people who occupy a vast, rich continent.

Aside from any lingering tensions over live cattle exports, their willingness to help Australia is tempered by two factors: the scale of their problem when compared with Australia’s, and differing views about whether a more humane approach to those transiting in Indonesia will simply encourage more to come.

There is also this country’s treatment of their citizens who were coaxed into working as crew on people-smuggling boats. For too long, Australia treated poor, uneducated Indonesian minors as if they were real players in people-smuggling syndicates, subjecting them to mandatory prison terms that caused great distress to their families and compounded their poverty.

Then there was also the heavy-handedness of Kevin Rudd during the Oceanic Viking episode of 2009 – something that will influence the dynamics of the meeting, should it go ahead in the event that Rudd, not Gillard, is prime minister next week.

Moreover, for all the talk about accepting all the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers, not nearly enough has been done to promote a regional framework in which asylum seekers could ultimately be processed in a regional centre in Indonesia and resettled here and elsewhere.

This meeting, which follows an invitation in January for the third annual leaders’ dialogue, offers the potential for some plain speaking about what more can be done to promote co-operation, deter boat journeys and discourage impoverished Indonesians from accepting work on boats.

Prudently, our Prime Minister is keen to lower expectations, insisting there will be a broad agenda for the talks. She also knows her hosts will be wary of any attempt to play to a domestic audience.

President Yudhoyono is similarly unlikely to be drawn on his opinion of the opposition’s plan to ”stop the boats” by turning them back when safe to do so, though his opposition is understood.

Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, among others, has made it very plain – and the suggestion that official statements do not reflect Indonesia’s objections to the policy have merely exacerbated the anger in Jakarta.

So, in the absence of new ideas or much greater will to follow them through, there is little prospect of even slowing the boats, before or after September 14.








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