By Jill Fraser
MELBOURNE Australia (AA) - Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to step in and engage in international diplomacy Thursday after deputy Barnaby Joyce claimed that Australia's 2011 decision to suspend live cattle exports to Indonesia was linked to an increase in asylum seeker boats traveling in the other direction.
Insisting that "there is no [such] link between the Indonesian government and people smuggling" -- and praising the leadership of Indonesian President Joko Widodo -- Turnbull spent much of Thursday morning trying to hose down Joyce's overnight allegation.
During a lively pre-election debate in the eastern state of New South Wales on Wednesday evening, Joyce related the suspension of live cattle trade to Indonesia in 2011 due to animal welfare concerns with an increase in the number of asylum seekers travelling by boat from Indonesia to Australia.
"When we closed down the live animal export industry [to Indonesia], it was around about the same time that we started seeing a lot of people arriving in boats in Australia,” Joyce told the forum.
Asked on Thursday morning if he stood by his suggestion, Joyce appeared to be back peddling.
He said he didn’t claim the suspension caused Indonesia to send people to Australia, but rather that it made it difficult to negotiate with the country on the issue.
“I’m just stating the bleeding obvious [that it had been an insult by the former Labor government under Julia Gillard to cut off Indonesia’s supply of meat],” he told the Seven Network.
The ABC reported Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop as saying Thursday that she had contacted the Indonesian government to explain Joyce’s comments, while Channel Nine reported that Joyce's comment was immediately dismissed by the Indonesian embassy in Canberra.
Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told Fairfax Media that the remarks were "patently false", and that they represent "at best" an over-analysis of the subject.
"Worse still, it is shocking to suggest that the Indonesian government would risk the safety and lives of innocent asylum seekers in making the treacherous journey to Australia simply to make a point," Natalegawa said.