Asylum-seeker boats and Indonesia: The method behind Scott Morrison's mindset
November 14, 2013
It is a difficult sell for any politician, let alone one with as little goodwill in the bank as Scott Morrison, but he believes the more he says about what Australia wants from Indonesia, the less chance he has of getting it.
Yet the less he talks, the greater the frustration the Border Protection Minister is withholding information to which Australian voters have a natural right.
Critics are in no doubt, claiming this is a government steeped in secrecy. It sounds true, but is it really that simple?
This is an area of policy which generates strong feelings and motives are routinely questioned. Even the raw numbers are open to interpretation.
That two boats rescued by Australian authorities in the Indonesian search and rescue zone have been denied re-entry to Indonesian ports has been cited as proof the new policy is unravelling.
The government begs to differ.
It is all a matter of perspective. And of timing. And of the point from which one begins measuring.
Morrison and his boss, Tony Abbott, maintain asylum-seeker arrivals have dropped away by a massive 90 per cent when comparing the rate of irregular arrivals in July against those in October.
The opposition agrees the numbers have dropped fast but claims the decisive factor was Kevin Rudd's toughening of policy from July, involving a bald declaration no arrivals would be resettled here, and the best any could hope for was permanent resettlement in the hell hole that is PNG's Manus Island.
The then opposition slammed this deal as chicanery, claiming Port Moresby's compliance had been bought using half a trillion dollars of Australian aid money, the control over which had been surrendered to Prime Minister Peter O'Neill in exchange for his acquiescence.
Since the September election here, however, the Coalition has more or less embraced the PNG plan. Yet problems threaten to multiply.
That Indonesia has refused to accept the return of the two boatloads of asylum seekers, the second of which occurred last Thursday, was unknown until the weekend. It is now a matter of public record.
This is no thanks to the Abbott government, which has invoked operational security as a catch-all excuse for remaining mute.
To many on the political left, the government's parsimony with information is evil personified.
The government's frustration at its treatment over this is manifest. Yet Morrison's refusal to provide reasonable information outside his weekly Friday press conferences, at which, by the way, he also refuses to be forthcoming, has now backfired so badly it must surely be close to abandonment.
Intentionally or not, Morrison has created a scarcity value for information on boat arrivals and the official response to them.
As late as Wednesday, the government was refusing to confirm reports a boatload of Somalis had made it to Darwin Harbour. There seemed no ''operational'' reason why this information was top secret.
Yet the government might be correct in the assessment the key to Jakarta's co-operation on receiving boats turned around at sea is that it remains a matter of as little ongoing controversy as possible - if only because of domestic resistance in that country. It is a difficult argument to accept because it appears so obviously self-serving. Yet it must be considered.
Canberra-Jakarta relations are more intense than many critics realise and are being conducted at several levels simultaneously, across diplomatic, defence, and specific operational spheres, such as border security, policing and maritime search and rescue.
Foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Marty Natalegawa have met eight times in just seven weeks, and Abbott's special envoy on people smuggling, the retired military general Jim Molan, has been in more or less constant contact. He is in Jakarta right now.
The key to Abbott's approach when he met his election pledge to visit Indonesia before travelling to any other country was not merely the projection of an elevated respect and recognition of Indonesia' sovereignty (along with a bit of apologising for slurs while in opposition), but also the muscular assertion of Australia's territorial integrity. It was a move that garnered new respect.
And Abbott believes the understandings reached with his counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in those talks were solid and durable, reflecting a joint commitment to end the scourge of people smuggling.
But they are also attenuated by the realpolitik of international relations, national pride and separate strategic imperatives.
Whether some form of people swap is - or is not - on the table remains to be seen.
The problem for the Abbott government domestically is that if controversy is indeed the enemy of improved anti-people smuggling measures in Indonesia, it is asking Australians to take it on trust.
In this of all areas, that is a big ask.