Abbott's plan to 'stop the votes' is working

Indonesia's ability to use boat arrivals as a bargaining chip is a far more devastating problem for Tony Abbott than the nationalist ire an apology to President Yudhoyono would trigger.

Surely Australia deserves at least one boring parliament? Like the 42nd and 43rd, the 44th parliament is shaping up as just a bit too exciting.

In 2007, just as Kevin Rudd booted John Howard out of power, markets began to throw out worthless mortgage-backed securities. A ripple became a wave; the wave a tsunami; and the GFC smashed through Labor’s first term back in power leaving the budget (but, significantly, not the economy) in tatters.

In 2010, Julia Gillard did in a tiny way what David Cameron in the UK had to do in a major way – modify election commitments to form a minority government. While nobody batted an eyelid over Cameron’s policy rejig to work alongside the Liberal Democrats, all hell broke loose over Gillard’s upgrading of her emmissions trading scheme mandate to include a high-priced, fixed-term period to appease her minority partner, the Greens. The ‘carbon tax’ unleashed trench-warfare on the House of Reps.

And in 2013, Tony Abbott’s failure to apologise to a justifiably miffed Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears to be turning his decisive electoral victory into a rout. 

Abbott must now tip-toe through a diplomatic minefield if he is to avoid a dramatic escalation of the ‘boats’ problem – after the abolition of the carbon tax, his second highest priority for government (Abbott can win on carbon: here's howJuly 25).

If today, or tomorrow, Abbott issues exactly the right kind of statement, he can start to repair the damage caused by this crisis in relations with Indonesia. But it is still a lose-lose scenario for the Coalition. 

Go too far with an apology, and Abbott will appear, to his voting base, to be a weak supplicant afraid to back his own principles.

But fail to go far enough, and Jakarta will roast him alive.

If Abbott is going to err on the side of one of those two excesses, it would have to be the former. Go on Tony, say sorry and sweep this thing away as quickly as possible.

If he chooses to give Jakarta the 'finger' – an increasingly common Liberal habit according to Tim Dunlop (Abbott’s siege mentality could work, November 20) – he could well get a spike of support from conservative voters who don't relish the prospect of being seen as the whipped curs of Asia.

Justice, at face value, would demand Abbott stick by the principle that our intelligence services, which do indeed save lives and make the world a better place, were just doing their job and that no leader should have to confirm or deny what that entails.

But then Abbott might do better to recall the famous line from existentialist writer Albert Camus: “I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice”.

Or rather, Abbott clearly believes in justice, but he wants to defend Australia’s borders just as much. And sticking to the principle of defending Australian spies will ensure a real invasion of boat arrivals, positively aided by an angry Indonesian government.

How do we know that? Because The Jakarta Post quotes a member of Indonesia’s House of Reps Commission on defence, foreign affairs and information, Susaningtyas Handayani Kertopati, as saying: “We are in a better position than Australia. This issue [boat people] could be utilised as a bargaining chip in demanding apology from Prime Minister Tony Abbott.”

To begin the ‘bargaining’, President Yudhoyono has suspended all naval co-operation on people smuggling, as well as halting all military exercises and intelligence sharing.

The message couldn’t be much clearer: "Say sorry or get ready to process tens of thousands of illegal migrants."

Faced with that invidious choice, Abbott will surely prefer some short-term opprobrium from his more nationalist voters than a sustained collapse of his ‘stop the boats’ policy.

Looming large in Abbott’s mind will be two electoral tests of support for his government: the by-election for the seat of Griffith, which Kevin Rudd’s tardy departure will likely push back until February 1, and, far more crucially, a new Senate election in Western Australia.

In recent days the Australian Electoral Commission has petitioned the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, to void the WA Senate election in which it lost 1370 ballot papers.

That is in addition to any challenge by Clive Palmer, who is not happy at seeing Greens senator Scott Ludlam, and Sports Party candidate Wayne Dropulich take the seats of Labor’s Louise Pratt and Palmer United Party’s Zhenya Wang in the WA recount.

If the High Court declares the election result void, the WA senate election will be re-run at a cost to taxpayers of around $13 million.

One suspects that the Liberal Party would be happy to pay double that to see the same voting patterns expressed as last time.

But what chance is there of that with the Indonesian crisis hurting Abbott’s credibility and Clive Palmer’s store of luck beginning to running out? (Some commentators already think Clive is facing 'Palmergeddon'.) 

Abbott’s crack political team would be mad to advise anything but a decent amount of contrition to calm the Indonesians.

Failing to do so will mean that Abbott’s plan to stop the boats instead becomes a disastrous exercise in stopping the votes. 

Big swings in Western Australia would mean loss of the control of the Senate, continuing frustration over the repeal of the mining and carbon taxes beyond July of next year (when the new senate sits) and, well, a parliament as chaotic as either of the previous two.

It's now up to Tony Abbott to deliver us from that old curse of 'living in interesting times'. 

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