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Turnbacks remain an irritant in Australia-Indonesia relations: former foreign minister Natalegawa

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa says Australia’s turnbacks policy is “incompatible with good bilateral relations”. EPA/Jose Sena Goulao

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has called out the Abbott government over its attempt to shrug off any cost to the bilateral relationship caused by the unilateral manner of its boat turnbacks.

But equally, Natalegawa has complicated Labor’s looming policy decision on whether to embrace turnbacks to limit its exposure at the election.

Natalegawa, who served under the very Australia-friendly president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on Monday participated in the Crawford Australian leadership forum at the Australian National University and appeared on Sky TV.

Natalegawa described bilateral relations as at “a key juncture” and lamented the lack of communication. He said there is a “sense of disconnect” in the relationship at the moment.

There had been low moments before, but there had always been “a sense of communications” which indeed intensified during crisis times, Natalegawa said. “I’m not sure that that kind of communication is going on at the moment, whether public or private.”

While there have been other reasons for recent tensions, notably the executions of the two Australians, Natalegawa made it clear Australia’s policy on turnbacks is a continuing irritant.

The policy “is inherently incompatible with good bilateral relations because it is unilateral”, Natalegawa said.

“The turning back the boat policy, the way it has been executed, has tended to give the impression of shifting the blame, or shifting responsibility, unilaterally on to Indonesia,” Natalegawa said.

Rather, “we need to be sitting down together and have a common solution”.

The problem must be addressed with a co-ordinated and co-operative mindset. At times either Indonesia or Australia reverted to more unilateral approaches, but regional and national approaches must be in synergy.

It was no use “blaming one another”, Natalegawa said.

“If we go on along this path, whilst the main problem may be resolved, it will be at the expense of bilateral relations.”

Natalegawa said Indonesia as a transit country had every interest in ensuring there was no pull factor from Australia. “We have a common strategic interest.”

Although he did not specifically address it, Natalegawa’s remarks give further substance to the view that Indonesia has been seriously annoyed by Australia’s apparent recent paying of a boat’s crew to take the passengers back. Indonesia has called for explanations from Australia and registered its protest.

When the federal government was feeling the heat over the payment claim, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hit back, declaring: “the best way for Indonesia to resolve any concerns it has about Operation Sovereign Borders is for Indonesia to enforce sovereignty over its borders. Operation Sovereign Borders is necessary because Indonesian boats with Indonesian crews are leaving Indonesia with the express intention of breaching our sovereignty, facilitated by illegal people-smuggling syndicates.”

Natalegawa picked up on the contrast between the Australia-Indonesia relationship and Tony Abbott’s great warmth towards Singapore, which Abbott has visited over the last couple of days. Abbott on Monday spoke of turning “friendship into something far more akin to a family relationship”.

Natalegawa said it would have been wonderful “if our leaders can be seen to be communicating with one another”. Communication was “terribly important”.

Some of Natalegawa’s comments chimed in with the sentiment expressed by Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs when she said recently: “Boats have got to stop. But have we thought about what the consequences are of pushing people back to our neighbour Indonesia? Is it any wonder that Indonesia will not engage with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty?”

Triggs copped a barrage of abuse from ministers and fresh calls for her resignation over her remarks, which they chose to misrepresent. Presumably the government will be more circumspect about Natalegawa’s observations.

Natalegawa’s comments will feed into the difficult debate now underway in Labor, whose hardheads want its present opposition to turnbacks dropped so as to remove a political vulnerability before the election.

Natalegawa’s concerns play to those who use as one argument against turnbacks that they are provocative to the Indonesians. But he also flagged that Indonesia could be more sympathetic to a properly communicated policy – not that he can speak for the present Indonesian government.

If Bill Shorten is going to get a pro-turnback policy through the party – and he’s carefully not ruling that out – it will need to be well wrapped in elaborate guarantees of consultations with the Indonesians, promises of transparency and other assurances, and be accompanied by a very generous humanitarian intake.

Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with Labor environment spokesman Mark Butler, here or on iTunes.

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