CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Tony Abbott's first major test: stopping the boats
, October 12, 2013
After six years in opposition, the realities and complexities of being in government are quickly dawning on Tony Abbott’s new team.
Fortunately, the new prime minister has opted to delay bringing back parliament possibly until November 12. This would be more than two months after the election, giving his new ministers the chance to settle in.
This extended hiatus is giving his frontbench the time they need to become fully briefed by public servants, to consider staff appointments and to prioritise their agendas, and for Mr Abbott himself to undertake his first overseas visit to Indonesia and meet its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The delay of the parliament is part of Mr Abbott’s determination to be a more considered leader and to deliver a much promised “adult” government. If he has learnt nothing else from the past six years it is that the “rush-rush” of the Rudd administration and the convoluted deal-making of the Gillard administration, both of which undermined good policy, should be avoided at all costs.
Coalition ministers in tough portfolios are being confronted by the responsibilities of government — notably the asylum-seeker dilemma and the recent tragedy of another 22 people drowning off the coast of Indonesia.
Make no mistake. Tony Abbott will not survive as prime minister if he is unable to stem the tide of asylum-seekers. It is more fundamental to his agenda than getting rid of the carbon tax.
Of course, it makes some sense to attempt to play down the issue in the media and reduce the number of reports by staging weekly briefings rather than providing a notification for each boat arrival.
Labor must be kicking itself that it did not do this while in government. Instead, it issued a media release every time a new illegal vessel appeared in Australian waters and thereby provided fresh ammunition for radio presenters and other news outlets to fire at the government.
Yet this issue goes beyond prudent media management.
Fundamentally, this is an issue between Australia and its nearest neighbour, Indonesia, and will have to involve co-operation with Indonesia for the boats to stop.
Sections of the Australian media are happy to fan any diplomatic differences between Australia and Indonesia in order to prove the point that Mr Abbott gained power illegitimately by stirring up voter unhappiness over the asylum-seeker issue. Some are salivating over the difficulties Mr Abbott now faces.
Yet some straight talking from Mr Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest-serving foreign affairs minister, has helped clear the air somewhat.
Mr Downer decided to enter the debate by encouraging the new Abbott government to be tough with Indonesia from the outset, while conceding there have been mistakes on both sides in failing to broker a solution.
“The Australian government made a catastrophic mistake dismantling all the measures taken to close down this trade in the early 2000s,” Mr Downer wrote in The Australian recently. “The Indonesians have made a mistake by telling Kevin Rudd this year that all they would do was convene an international conference on people-smuggling and not much else.”
The “Downer Solution” is a simple one. Australia would fly back to Indonesia anyone who arrived here by boat without a visa. In exchange, Australia would take, one for one, UNHCR-approved refugees from refugee camps in Indonesia.
According to Mr Downer, this would stop the boats almost overnight.
The alternative is a policy, already flagged by Mr Abbott, of the Australian Navy turning back the boats, creating a messy but perhaps unavoidable confrontation with Indonesia.
“The Indonesians don’t like that, but the boats are theirs, have their crews and come from their ports,” Mr Downer said. “They can hardly complain that we are sending their boats back to Indonesia — their home.”
He continued: “This issue needs to be settled and fast. It, along with the absurd live cattle ban, has dominated the Australian-Indonesian relationship for the past five years. We need to move on and we need to do so while Yudhoyono is still in power.”
Free from the niceties of diplomacy as a foreign minister, Mr Downer’s message is clear and he has done the government a favour by stripping away the inessentials in the debate.
Move quickly to force the issue with Indonesia for an outcome that is acceptable to both countries, and then move on to a resumption of long-term matters that affect both nations.
The pressure is now on Mr Abbott to find that outcome.
The last thing he needs is for his entire first one or two years to be dominated by the asylum-seeker issue.