THE Abbott government insists it will honour its election promise to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat despite Indonesian opposition to its controversial plan to turn back vessels.
Mr Abbott says the coalition “absolutely, totally” respects Indonesia’s sovereignty despite comments by Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya that the turn-back policy is “offensive”, “illegal” and could jeopardise good relations between the countries.
“I have no argument with anyone in the Indonesian establishment or parliament,” Mr Abbott said in Sydney on Thursday.
“My argument is with people smugglers and my point to the people smugglers is `the game is up’.”
Mr Abbott said he is confident his coalition government will be able to work effectively with Indonesia, as former coalition governments had done.
Not everyone in Indonesia feels the same.
“The policy which is going to be implemented by Mr Abbott clearly … annoys our sovereignty as independent country,” Mr Yahya told ABC television.
And Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said last week that Jakarta was opposed to Mr Abbott’s plan to turn boats around – as well as his proposal to buy Indonesian fishing boats to stop them falling into the hands of people smugglers.
Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite says Mr Yahya’s comments accurately reflect the Indonesian government’s position on Mr Abbott’s policy.
“This is quickly turning into a diplomatic disaster for the new government,” Mr Thislethwaite said.
But Australian National University foreign policy specialist Andrew Carr says the Indonesian MP’s remarks may really be aimed at a domestic audience.
“This is an issue that does have some resonance with the Indonesian population,” Dr Carr told AAP.
“Traditionally, that has not been as much a factor in (Australia’s) international relations with Indonesia and I don’t think it will be a major factor here.”
Mr Abbott will use his first international trip as prime minister to visit Jakarta to hold bilateral talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on 30 September. Trade and people smuggling are expected to be at the top of the agenda.
Mr Abbott repeatedly said during the recent federal election campaign he wanted his first international visit as prime minister to be to Indonesia and that his government would be focused on Asia.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief of Army Angus Campbell was formally tasked on Thursday with leading operations against asylum-seeker boats under Mr Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy.
The former SAS commander will report directly to immigration minister Scott Morrison and coordinate the 16 departments and agencies that deal with refugee boats.
Mr Morrison met with Lieutenant General Campbell shortly after his appointment.
“The Australian people want that stopped and they have tasked this government to get that job done,” Mr Morrison said in Canberra.
“We won’t let them down.”
Lieutenant General Campbell replied: “There’s some work to do.” – AAP