Australian PM under pressure over refugee 'back-pedal'
Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivers an address to the Australian and Indonesian business forum in Jakarta on October 1, 2013
Abbott made Jakarta his first international trip after winning an election last month, with a vow to "Stop the Boats" a centrepiece of his campaign.
His policies -- which include turning people-smuggling boats back to Indonesia, pre-emptively buying up rickety fishing vessels there and paying villagers for intelligence -- were coolly received in Jakarta, and Abbott appeared to waver on the key points after talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Striking a more conciliatory tone, Abbott insisted Australia had never said it would tow boats back to Indonesia but would "turn boats around when it is safe to do so".
He said his vessel buy-up "was simply the establishment of some money that could be used by Indonesian officials working cooperatively with their Australian counterparts".
"The important thing is not to start a fight, but to get things done," said Abbott.
He was criticised by the current centre-left Labor opposition, with interim leader Chris Bowen saying it showed "ill thought-out sound grabs from opposition are proving unsustainable in government".
"Tony Abbott is now back-pedalling from his ridiculous buy-the-boats policy at 100 miles an hour, as he should," Bowen told the Australian Financial Review.
"However, it is embarrassing for Australia that it took Indonesia to tell us that it wasn't on, and Tony Abbott didn't just realise himself that it was a ridiculous policy."
The prime minister later insisted it was a "very good trip" and he had been "warmly welcomed".
"It was agreed that the operational details, the specifics of how this might work out would be left to officials and ministers, and officials and ministers will be talking together very, very soon indeed," Abbott told reporters.
"I don't think anyone in Indonesia is under any illusions about Australia's resolve to stop the boats.
"We will work with Indonesia in ways that fully respect Indonesia's sovereignty, but for us people-smuggling is a sovereignty issue, and that's why we will stop the boats and we will work wholeheartedly with Indonesia to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible."
Separately, Abbott was criticised in Indonesia for barring local journalists from his major press conference during the trip and restricting entry to Australian media.
Umar Idris, from the Alliance of Independent Journalists, said it was the first time he was aware of that such an exclusion had been made.
"Australia has good press freedom and so they should practise that in Indonesia as well," Umar told the Jakarta Globe newspaper, which said its own correspondents had been shut out.
"Tony Abbott's visit is important for the Indonesian media and journalists should be granted equal, open access."
Abbott's government has come under fire at home for limiting the release of information about refugee boats to a weekly briefing, even when a vessel sank last week off Indonesia with the loss of at least 39 people.
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