KIERAN GILBERT: This is the first overseas visit by the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and, as I say, it’s been, overall, a successful one given the quite difficult context in which it has been undertaken. With me to discuss this and the other issues of the day, we’ve got Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham and Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor. Senator Birmingham, first to you. While the rhetoric was good and the language was positive, there’s still a lot of work to be done, isn’t there, to get any sort of agreement with some of those elements of the Coalition policy that the Indonesians simply don’t like, don’t accept?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we fully accept and acknowledge that the relationship with Indonesia is one that we should always be working hard at and, throughout the life of the Government, we will work hard at making sure it is a strong not just relationship but a strong partnership between the two countries and President Yudhoyono made very clear that they see a priority in ending the people smuggling trade. They see it to Indonesia’s benefit just as it is to Australia’s benefit, so we’ll work cooperatively with them through all of the policy issues to make sure that we succeed on that issue as well as on the many, many other important shared issues we have with Indonesia, especially on strengthening and building our economic ties and that’s why Tony Abbott as Prime Minister has taken some 20 business leaders with him to Indonesia to demonstrate and make sure this is more than just a discussion about people smuggling; this is a discussion about a very broad partnership in the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: It’s a good start. It’s a good start but there’s a long way to go, isn’t there because, while the language was, as I say, pretty positive from… and certainly from Tony Abbott there was a real contrition there, almost… there was an apology, even, at this reception last night for the language used from both sides of politics, so conceding that the Coalition have overstepped the mark in the way you’ve handled the broader asylum seeker debate.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think it was a very clear apology from Tony Abbott about past failures in terms of policy implementation with Indonesia, be it the sugar hit that was given to the people smugglers by the previous Government, be it the issues around the banning of the live cattle trade and those factors have been a real impediment to the relationship with Indonesia over the last few years. Now, we’re starting afresh, happily. We want a strong economic relationship. We want a strong partnership on a diplomatic level and we want to make sure we work with Indonesia on these people smuggling issues.
KIERAN GILBERT: It’s not every day, though, that you get a Prime Minister basically apologising for, he said, both sides of politics, instead of… saying more… that there should have been more action, effectively, is what he was arguing.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And he highlighted those two issues that I pointed out but, in the end, Tony Abbott is trying to make sure we start afresh with Indonesia because we’ve had a very bad period of time with Indonesia over this last Government. We have seen a real deterioration in our standing during that time because of bad policy decisions.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: … what we have had since this Government has been elected is a culture of secrecy fall upon this area of public policy where we’re not being told what happened. Now, Kieran, for 2½ years as Minister for Home Affairs, when there were vessels arriving in our waters I, on each occasion, released that information so the Australian public and the Australian media understood what was going on. We don’t see that any more. We’re having weekly announcements by the Minister [for Immigration and Border Protection] but, even then, details will not be disclosed to the media or to the public. I think that’s a shameful approach to public policy.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, let’s get Senator Birmingham’s thoughts on that. I’ll come back to for a bit more on that, Brendan O’Connor, but, Senator Birmingham, you’ve heard Brendan O’Connor and his argument… as Home Affairs minister, was completely upfront with the Australian people. Is your Liberal counterpart, Scott Morrison, and your Government doing enough here to keep the Australian people in the loop?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We will be quite open with the Australian people in a methodical way. Now, ultimately, there will be the regular briefings that Scott Morrison, as minister, is going to hold and he’s started doing that and will continue doing that, so the Australian people will have the questions answered, the information released, in a methodical way but the approach of the previous Government did not work. On every level, their asylum seeker policies were a failure and the problems just got worse and worse, so obviously it’s time for a new approach and we’re taking a new approach across the board and that is to try to make sure that we break that model for the people smugglers and ensure that, whether it’s working cooperatively with Indonesia or whether in fact it’s how we release some information in Australia, nothing we do is helping or supporting that people smuggler model.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: … Mr Abbott made much of the ‘turn back the boat’ policy being his central plank of asylum seeker policy and yet he has not, again… he has again failed to expressly raise this with the President of Indonesia. That does not augur well for the future arrangements between our two nations if the Prime Minister who won an election based on policies cannot present them to our friends and our neighbour, Indonesia, and he may well say he’s…
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, finally… yep, Senator Birmingham, your response to that, quickly?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: All of these issues are being dealt with, with Indonesia, at the appropriate levels. Now, the Labor Party and Mr O’Connor…
KIERAN GILBERT: But is he going to the detail given, as Brendan O’Connor says, it was such a key part of his plank for election… is he confronting this, in the detail necessary, with the Indonesian Government?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And you know what I find amazing here, Kieran, is that the Labor Party on the one hand says Indonesia has such grave concerns about this policy and then acknowledges that it wasn’t even raised at that Presidential/Prime Ministerial-level meeting. Now, ultimately, I don’t know what was said behind closed doors, so it may or may not have been discussed. What I do know, though, is that all of our policies are being dealt with methodically and carefully with Indonesia at the right level, be it Prime Minister to President, minister to minister, or bureaucrats to bureaucrat.
KIERAN GILBERT: Brendan O’Connor, Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time, gentlemen, appreciate it.