The government goes into the parliamentary session’s final fortnight on the back foot over two highly contentious issues: its citizenship legislation and Indonesia’s demand to know whether Australia paid people smugglers to return asylum seekers.
Tony Abbott was defiant on both issues at the weekend.
In face of doubts from some experts, Abbott defended the constitutionality of the ministerial discretion in the legislation, to be introduced in the next two weeks, to strip citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorist activities.
And Abbott’s message to Indonesia was, in effect, that the government would do whatever it took to keep the boats stopped.
The government faces a move by the Greens in the Senate to try to get documents to determine whether money changed hands, and continued diplomatic embarrassment as the Indonesians speak out.
While the issues are separate, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is in the spotlight on both.
Under the citizenship plan as announced, Dutton was designated the sole decision-maker, subject to a review process – although he said last week he was open to having one or two other ministers involved.
In relation to the bribery claim, Dutton initially categorically denied that the government paid crew members to return the 65 people, who had been bound for New Zealand. But Abbott on Friday refused to confirm or deny.
Abbott again on Sunday refused to say whether there had been payments – despite calls from the Indonesian government and a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees saying the passengers had been interviewed and said the crew had received money.
At issue on citizenship revocation is whether the decision should rest in ministerial or court hands. Critics say it is inappropriate to have it with a minister or ministers and that probably or possibly that would be struck down by the High Court.
Labor, which has given in-principle support to acting on dual nationals, is questioning ministerial decision-making. “We do want to see it based on the separation of powers,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said.
Abbott dodged when asked if he would be willing to allow a judicial process upfront if that were needed to get the legislation passed.
Abbott said the whole point was to keep the community safe and he believed the public would be “very happy” if dual citizen foreign fighters did not come back to Australia. “And that’s what the government is determined to do – to ensure that they don’t come back to Australia.”
Abbott said the government, based on the advice it had, was confident that the proposed legislation minimised constitutional risk.
With fierce debate about ministerial discretion, the next big questions will be whether the draft legislation goes to cabinet and, if it does, whether ministers such as Malcolm Turnbull, who recently fought parts of the original citizenship package that Dutton urged, will take a stand.
When it is introduced, the legislation will go to the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.
As Abbott again stonewalled over whether the government paid the people smuggling crew, a story in the Jakarta Post said the row “risks damaging already strained relations”.
It reported that Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said on Saturday that if the allegation were true it “will be a new low for the way that the Australian government is handling this issue”.
But Abbott said: “There’s really only one thing to say here and that is that we have stopped the boats. That’s good for Australia, it’s good for Indonesia and it’s particularly good for all of those who want to see a better world, because if the boats start again the deaths start again.”
Pressed on whether it was important voters knew whether taxpayer funds had been used to pay a criminal syndicate to commit a crime, Abbott said it was “very important that the Australian public are reassured that there is a government in charge which will not waver for a second in our determination to ensure that the boats stay stopped and it’s very important that the Indonesians know that the Australian government is absolutely resolute in our determination never to see this evil trade start up again”.
The BBC reported James Lynch, a spokesman for UNHCR, saying that “we have interviewed the 65 passengers and they have said the crew received a payment”. He said the passengers were transferred to a customs boat for four days “before being put on two boats and sent back to Indonesia”.
Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said if the claim that Dutton had denied up front turned out to be true “then Peter Dutton is seriously injured”.