• Australia’s deputy prime minister links issues in debate
  • Indonesia seeks clarification of comments, ABC reports

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce suggested the then Labor government’s suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 contributed to a surge in asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.

Joyce drew the parallel during a televised election debate late Wednesday. Asked to clarify whether he was suggesting the Indonesian government intentionally unleashed the wave of refugees in retaliation, he responded: “I think it’s absolutely the case that we created extreme bad will with Indonesia when we closed down the live animal export industry."

Australia’s relations with Indonesia have been intermittently tense in recent years, not least due to waves of asylum seekers ferried in leaky boats by people smugglers from Indonesian waters. The Labor government suspended live exports to its northern neighbor after a television documentary exposed cases of animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs.

A spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said his government wanted to clarify Joyce’s comments before officially responding, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Joyce, who leads the National Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition, has a straight-talking style and a record of making outspoken comments -- including his threat last year to kill Hollywood actor Johnny Depp’s dogs when they were brought to Australia in breach of quarantine laws.

“Might I remind you that when we closed down the live animal export industry, it was around about the same time that we started seeing a lot of people arriving in boats in Australia,” Joyce, who is also agriculture minister, said in the debate -- triggering moans from members of the audience.

When asked by the moderator whether he genuinely believed the two issues were linked, Joyce responded: “I think that our capacity to have a strong working relationship with Indonesia is affected by them relying on us to be reliable suppliers of protein for their market.”

Indonesia is Australia’s 11th-largest trading partner, with the Asian nation buying wheat and live animals while Australia purchases crude petroleum. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government has sought to shield its economic relationship with Indonesia from ups and downs in political ties and expand trade.

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