CANBERRA – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was accused Wednesday by the opposition of “backpedaling at 100 miles an hour” on his hard-line asylum seeker policies during a sensitive diplomatic visit to Indonesia this week.
Abbott chose Jakarta for his first international trip since winning Australia’s elections last month, with a vow to “Stop the Boats” a centerpiece of his campaign.
His policies, which include turning people-smuggling boats back to Indonesia, pre-emptively buying up rickety fishing vessels and paying villagers for intelligence, were coolly received in Indonesia, and Abbott appeared to waver on the key points after talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Striking a more conciliatory tone, Abbott insisted Australia had never said it would tow boats back to Indonesia but “turn boats around when it is safe to do so” and that his vessel buy up “was simply the establishment of some money that could be used by Indonesian officials working cooperatively with their Australian counterparts.”
“The important thing is not to start a fight, but to get things done,” said Abbott.
He was criticized by the center-left Labor Party, with interim leader Chris Bowen saying it showed “ill thought out sound grabs from opposition are proving unsustainable in government.”
“Tony Abbott is now backpedaling from his ridiculous buy-the-boats policy at 100 miles an hour, as he should,” Bowen told the Australian Financial Review. “However, it is embarrassing for Australia that it took Indonesia to tell us that it wasn’t on, and Tony Abbott didn’t just realize himself that it was a ridiculous policy.”
Abbott’s government has come under fire at home for limiting the release of information about refugee boats to a weekly briefing, even when a vessel sank last week off Indonesia, killing at least 39 people.
Separately, Abbott was criticized in Indonesia for barring local journalists from his major news conference during the trip and restricting entry to Australian media. Umar Idris, from the Alliance of Independent Journalists, said it was the first time he was aware that such an exclusion had been made.