• Asylum boats on Australia, Indonesia horizon

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    SYDNEY: Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd heads to Indonesia this week for his first foreign trip since retaking the leadership, but one in which the thorny domestic issue of asylum-seekers is set to figure prominently.

    Would-be refugees risking their lives journeying to Australia by boat, often from transit hubs in Indonesia, are a key issue for the upcoming election.

    Australia has tried to stem the flow with punitive policies banishing asylum-seekers to the remote Pacific Islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, but thousands have arrived by boat since and scores more have died trying.

    Rudd has already drawn Indonesia into the domestic debate, pouring scorn on his election rival opposition leader Tony Abbott and his plan to “turn back” the boats, saying this risked a diplomatic incident with Jakarta.

    “I really wonder if he is trying to risk conflict with Indonesia . . . there have been some pretty rough times in the relationship, I never want to see that again,” Rudd told reporters in Canberra.

    The jetsetting former foreign minister and ex-diplomat will take the prickly issue abroad this week, hoping to emphasis his leadership credentials after three years in exile, which ended last month with his dramatic toppling of Julia Gillard. AFP

    Rudd won a 57-45 leadership ballot of Labor lawmakers fearing crushing defeat at the polls in September, where the politically sensitive issue of asylum-seekers is expected to loom large.

    Zareh Ghazarian, who lectures in politics at Melbourne’s Monash University, said Rudd would be looking to consolidate Australia’s relationship with Indonesia in the two-day visit beginning Thursday.

    But he said the trip could also be used by Rudd to “advance his domestic political objectives” ahead of the yet-to-be announced election date.

    Ghazarian said Rudd wanted “to be seen to be a Prime Minister who is in control of Australia’s foreign affairs and is comfortable dealing with our foreign neighbors and is addressing important issues.”

    “And the most important one of them all, at this point of time in terms of domestic politics, is asylum seekers and boat arrivals,” he added.

    With some 13,105 boat people arriving in Australia since January 1—the largest group of them from Iran with 4,361 arrivals—Ghazarian said the approach highlights Rudd’s new pragmatism.

    “Asylum-seeker policy is something that has been shown in the polls to really be hurting Labor in a number of important swinging seats, especially in western Sydney,” he said.

    “So if he is able to somehow ameliorate those voters’ concerns by being seen to be a bit more tough on border security, then it is not going to do any harm to Labor’s prospects.”

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