In a press conference today, newly re-minted Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd offered a vivid reminder of why his Labor Party government remains at the bottom of the polls, despite yet another chaotic change of leadership. Speaking on his second day in office, Rudd sought to cast opposition leader Tony Abbott’s proposal on maritime asylum seekers (Australia’s version of a national immigration problem) as feckless. Abbott has promised to send boatloads of illegal aliens back to Indonesia, the most common transit point for asylum seekers headed Down Under. Mr. Rudd argued that this policy raised the prospect of a confrontation with Jakarta:
I am concerned about Mr. Abbott’s policy where he says that he can “turn the boats back” to Indonesia, as he states, and when he states now, more recently, only “when safe”; and when the Indonesian government says they will not accept such a policy, I’m very concerned about whether, if Mr. Abbott were to become prime minister and continues [sic] that rhetoric and that posture and actually tries to translate that into reality, I really wonder whether he’s trying to risk some sort of conflict with Indoneisa. That’s not a good thing. That’s a really bad thing.
Lest viewers surmise that he was warning only about a diplomatic problem, Rudd later clarified by explicitly raising the prospect of a shooting war: “Konfrontasi with Indonesia evolved over a set of words, and turned into something else,” he said, using the Indonesian and Malay term for the undeclared 1962-1966 war between Indonesia and the newly created state of Malaysia.
The remarks drew a swift retort from Julie Bishop, shadow foreign minister for the opposition Liberal Party, who told reporters, “It is a massive overreach, it is a shocking diplomatic gaffe, and he should retract it before he does any more damage.”