AUSTRALIAN ministers will take part in regional talks in Indonesia on people-smuggling on Tuesday in a fresh bid to tackle an issue that looms large at upcoming elections.
Less than three weeks before Australians go to the polls, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Immigration Minister Tony Burke will meet ministers and senior officials from 13 other countries in Jakarta.
The talks come after Kevin Rudd’s Labor party last month unveiled a new policy that will see boatpeople arriving in Australia sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement even if they are genuine refugees.
Among those represented in Jakarta will be Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the home countries of many asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia after perilous sea journeys.
“The conference is an opportunity to further foster cooperation and build momentum in what is indisputably a regional problem,” said Burke ahead of the talks.
As the main transit hub for asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia, Indonesia offered to host the one-day conference when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono held talks with Australian Prime Minister Rudd last month.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa will represent Indonesia at the talks, which are expected to produce “concrete measures as well as a shared commitment among countries of origin, transit and destination”, the foreign ministry said.
The issue is a key battleground at the upcoming Australian elections, and Rudd’s new plan is an effort to win background from the conservative, Tony Abbott-led opposition, favourites to win the September 7 polls.
The tiny pacific island of Nauru has also agreed to join Rudd’s so-called Papua New Guinea Solution.
Asylum-seekers are a deeply sensitive issue in Australia as numbers increase, with more than 18,000 arriving so far in 2013, according to official figures.
Rudd’s plan has already succeeded in slowing the flow of asylum-seeker boats—but it has provoked howls of outrage from rights groups and cracks are already starting to appear.
In a weekend interview with Fairfax newspapers, Rudd’s PNG counterpart Peter O’Neill indicated that the agreement was not open-ended—as had previously been suggested—and there was a limit to the number of boatpeople it could settle.
PNG will be represented at Tuesday’s talks by Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato.
Abbott has also warned the ministers they cannot make any commitments at the talks as the government has been in “caretaker mode” since parliament was dissolved ahead of the elections.
During this time, a government must cease taking major policy decisions except on pressing matters, and only then in consultation with the opposition.
Other countries taking part in the conference include Malaysia and Thailand, which are so-called “transit countries”, and international organizations such as the International Organization for Migration. AFP