SYDNEY – New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Friday the conservative opposition’s proposal to turn back boats of asylum seekers risked inciting conflict with Indonesia and put gay marriage on the election agenda as well, calling for a bipartisan conscience ballot on the issue.
Speaking at his first news conference since being reappointed premier through a coup in his ruling Labor Party, Rudd said he would call Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later Friday about security issues and signaled that the sensitive policy will be a key theme in September’s national election.
Australia is grappling with a record influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat, with more than 10,000 seen in the first half of this year alone, many from transit hubs in Indonesia.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, whom polls currently indicate will win the election, has proposed turning back boats crammed with asylum seekers to Indonesia — a move that Jakarta has not welcomed.
“I really wonder if he (Abbott) is trying to risk conflict with Indonesia . . . there have been some pretty rough times in the (bilateral) relationship, I never want to see that again,” Rudd told reporters in Canberra.
Rudd explained that he meant a diplomatic rather than a military conflict, but added, “I am always wary about where diplomatic conflicts go.”
The former foreign minister said that if Indonesia indicated it would not support Abbott’s policy and it was pursued regardless, “you end up with a pretty robust diplomatic conflict and I become a little uncertain as to where that heads.”
“I have had enough experience in international relations . . . to know one thing: You really need to have some pretty cool hands on the tiller when you’re dealing with the Indonesia relationship.”
The opposition rejected Rudd’s comments, with foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop calling them “utterly outrageous.”
“The prime minister of this country has falsely, maliciously, recklessly, irresponsibly said that the coalition would trigger conflict with Indonesia,” Bishop told Sky News. “It is not our policy to breach Indonesian territorial sovereignty, nor is it our policy to trigger a conflict with Indonesia.
“It is an utterly, utterly outrageous statement for Kevin Rudd to make. And if this is the behavior we can expect from the prime minister within 24 hours of him being sworn in . . . then we are in for a very ugly period of Australian politics.”
Rudd said he was not suggesting Abbott would intentionally rouse diplomatic tensions, “but what I am saying very clearly, is that you have a policy collision here between what he says and the government of Indonesia says.”
Rudd says he is yet to decide on whether to travel to Indonesia next week for talks with Yudhoyono that were planned before this week’s sudden leadership revolt, which saw him topple Julia Gillard in a manner similar to his own ouster in 2010.
He also put same-sex marriage on the election agenda Friday, calling for a bipartisan conscience ballot on the matter and raising the possibility of putting it to a direct vote by the public.
Rudd, who reclaimed power from Julia Gillard in a dramatic party-room coup Wednesday, said lawmakers from all parties ought to be allowed a conscience vote — in which members of parliament vote on personal conviction rather than party lines — on the issue.
The Labor Party formally changed its position on the issue in December 2011 to pro-gay marriage, but Rudd and his predecessor have both historically been against such reform.
A conscience vote held on the issue last September was defeated by 98 votes to 42 after conservative leader Tony Abbott refused to allow opposition lawmakers to break party lines — rendering it a null prospect.
Both Gillard and Rudd voted against same-sex marriage in the September ballot but Rudd, a Christian, has since changed his position and challenged Abbott to a second vote under which conservatives would be freed from party doctrine.
“Whoever wins the next election, please, let’s just have the civility to open this to a conscience vote for all,” Rudd said at the news conference.
If Abbott refuses, Rudd said there are other options, including a referendum or plebiscite that would put the question directly to the Australian people because “I would just prefer to have this thing resolved.”
“I would like to see this done, and the reason I want to see it done is, frankly, it causes so many people such unnecessary angst out in Australia, in the gay and lesbian community. It just should not be the case,” Rudd said.
Same-sex unions are available in a majority of Australia’s states but because marriage falls under federal legislation, these couples are not formally recognized as married by the government.
Labor has amended scores of national laws to remove discrimination against same-sex couples but has so far refused to allow them full marriage rights.
The option of a referendum is not popular with gay rights campaigners, who fear an unpleasant and dangerous “no” campaign by opponents, particularly extremists, that could stoke hatred and vitriol against gays and lesbians.
As a result, they argue it is not for the public to vote on matters of basic human rights.