Once upon a time, many members of the intelligentsia criticised Coalition and Labor governments for being too beholden to the foreign policy of the United States. Now many of this same group effectively argue that Australian foreign policy should be in accordance with the wishes of the communist rulers in China. Others are determined that Australia”s approach to the attempted unlawful arrival of non-citizens should be consistent with the wishes of the democratically elected leaders of Indonesia.

Hence the controversy over the Coalition”s promise, if elected, to direct some Indonesian boats, containing asylum seekers but crewed by Indonesians, back towards Indonesian waters – when safe to do so. At his media conference on June 28, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd claimed Opposition Leader Tony Abbott might be “trying to risk some sort of conflict with Indonesia”.

Rudd initially said that he was “talking about diplomatic conflict”. But he added he was “always wary about where diplomatic conflicts go” and warned that “confrontation with Indonesia evolved over a set of words and turned into something else”. This was reference to the military conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia in first half of the 1960s which was initiated by the Sukarno regime in Jakarta. Australia was part of the British and Commonwealth Forces which supported Malaysia. Some 23 Australians were killed during the confrontation, aka Konfrontasi.

It makes no sense to compare a military conflict, 50 years ago, over territory with a possible disagreement between Australia and Indonesia now over non-Indonesian asylum seekers who transit through that country.

Certainly Rudd did not think so in the lead-up to the 2007 election. Interviewed by Alan Jones on 2GB on July 12, 2007, the then opposition leader said that if asylum seekers boats were “out there in the high seas”, as prime minister he would “seek to turn them back using the agency of the Australian navy”. On the morning before the November 2007 election, Rudd told The Australian that his approach to border security was based on “effective laws, effective detention arrangements [and] effective deterrent posture vis-a-vis vessels approaching Australian waters”.

Before that election, Rudd effectively supported John Howard”s approach. This was to have a red flag up front as a disincentive to people smugglers while exhibiting a green flag to those who had made it to Australian shores. By the end of the Howard government”s term, there were only a few asylum seekers remaining in detention and the boats had all but stopped.

Soon after the election, Rudd Labor threw the switch to moral vanity. On July 29, 2008, immigration minister Chris Evans announced a policy “containing seven values that will guide and drive new detention policy and practice”. This followed decisions to end offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, abolish temporary protection visas and “explicitly ban the detention of children in immigration detention centres”.

Evans” speech proclaimed Labor”s commitment to “compassion and tolerance”. This happened to be interpreted by people smugglers as Rudd walking into the water holding up a “Welcome” sign. Labor not only junked the red-flag approach. It also put up a green flag. Not long after, people smugglers put their boats to sea again, with the inevitable tragic drownings associated with such dangerous ventures.

During Julia Gillard”s prime ministership offshore processing was resumed and children were placed in detention centres. But the boats continued, with people smugglers convinced Labor was a soft-touch. Today Rudd is attempting to deal with the unintended consequences of his decisions of five years ago.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser has taken over the holier-than-thou role as he campaigns for Greens candidates in the Senate. It is true that, between late 1975 and early 1983, Fraser exhibited tolerance and compassion to Indo-Chinese asylum seekers. However, the circumstances were different. Only 2059 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat in this period. This is close to the monthly arrivals in recent times.

In 1975 and after, Indo-Chinese fled the new communist dictatorships in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by boat and stopped at their port of first entry. The overwhelming majority were subsequently processed offshore before arriving in Australia and elsewhere by plane with valid visas.

Now, many asylum seekers are flying to Indonesia and Malaysia and then destroying their identity documents. Subsequently they arrive by boat in Australia, where welfare payments and free healthcare are a huge attraction.

Indonesia does not spend money on asylum seekers in its country in transit. This is understandable since it is not a wealthy nation. Even so, Indonesia and Australia have a common interest in stopping people-smugglers from plying their trade.

If the Coalition wins, and Abbott implements his turn-back-the-boats policy, this would be unlikely to cause conflict with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or his successor.

The influential Indonesian political operative Dewi Fortuna Anwar was asked on Q&A what would be Jakarta”s response if an Abbott government turned back boats. She replied: “Not confrontation, as some people have mentioned lately”, but did concede that Indonesia would convey its concerns.

The relationship between Indonesia and Australia is strong enough to survive a disagreement about the proper response to a problem in which, as Anwar commented, “Indonesia and Australia are both victims”.

Postscript: There was a typographical error in last week”s column. William McMahon married Sonia Hopkins in 1965 (not 1975), aged 57, on the eve of Robert Menzies” retirement.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute. Peter Hartcher is on leave.