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Asylum boats on Australia-Indonesia agenda

03 July 2013, 17:00

Sydney - Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd heads to Indonesia this week for his first foreign trip since retaking the leadership, but one in which the thorny domestic issue of asylum-seekers is set to figure prominently.

Would-be refugees risking their lives journeying to Australia by boat, often from transit hubs in Indonesia, are a key issue for the upcoming election.

Australia has tried to stem the flow with punitive policies banishing asylum-seekers to the remote Pacific Islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, but thousands have arrived by boat since and scores more have died trying.

Rudd has already drawn Indonesia into the domestic debate, pouring scorn on his election rival opposition leader Tony Abbott and his plan to "turn back" the boats, saying this risked a diplomatic incident with Jakarta.

"I really wonder if he is trying to risk conflict with Indonesia... there have been some pretty rough times in the relationship, I never want to see that again," Rudd told reporters in Canberra.

The jetsetting former foreign minister and ex-diplomat will take the prickly issue abroad this week, hoping to emphasise his leadership credentials after three years in exile which ended last month with his dramatic toppling of Julia Gillard.

New pragmatism

Rudd won a 57-45 leadership ballot of Labour lawmakers fearing crushing defeat at the polls in September, where the politically-sensitive issue of asylum-seekers is expected to loom large.

Zareh Ghazarian, who lectures in politics at Melbourne's Monash University, said Rudd would be looking to consolidate Australia's relationship with Indonesia in the two-day visit beginning on Thursday.

But he said the trip could also be used by Rudd to "advance his domestic political objectives" ahead of the yet-to-be announced election date.

Ghazarian told AFP Rudd wanted "to be seen to be a Prime Minister who is in control of Australia's foreign affairs and is comfortable dealing with our foreign neighbours and is addressing important issues".

"And the most important one of them all, at this point of time in terms of domestic politics, is asylum seekers and boat arrivals," he added.

With about 13 105 boat people arriving in Australia since 1 January - the largest group of them from Iran with 4 361 arrivals - Ghazarian said the approach highlights Rudd's new pragmatism.

Other options

"Asylum-seeker policy is something that has been shown in the polls to really be hurting Labour in a number of important swinging seats, especially in western Sydney," he said.

"So if he is able to somehow ameliorate those voters' concerns by being seen to be a bit more tough on border security, then it is not going to do any harm to Labour's prospects."

Given the record influx of arrivals, the government has reportedly asked new Immigration Minister Tony Burke to consider other options, including stricter assessments and how to repatriate those deemed to be economic migrants.

The conservative opposition has labelled Rudd's comments on conflict with Indonesia reckless, but Abbott said this week the Prime Minister had "finally woken up to the fact that the vast majority of these people are not fair dinkum refugees".

"They're economic migrants pure and simple," Abbott said.

"Now I can understand why people from horrible countries would want to come to Australia. I can understand that. But they've got to come in the front door not the back door."

Regional effort

Professor Vedi Hadiz, Professor of Asian Societies and Politics at Murdoch University in Perth, said Rudd distancing himself from Abbott's policy of turning back the boats was welcome.

"And I think that just by distancing himself from Abbott, Rudd would make quite a lot of political mileage," he said.

Hadiz said Indonesia would be receptive of the idea of a clamp down on people-smuggling given it strains Indonesia's border controls.

But he added any attempt to deal with people-smuggling effectively would have to be a regional effort.

"It's not really even what Australia does or what Indonesia does, it has to be Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and of course that's a huge effort," he said.



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