View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Abbott won’t say whether Australia paid people smugglers to turn boat around

Tony Abbott wouldn’t say whether ‘by hook or by crook’ included paying thousands of dollars to turn back a recent boat bound for New Zealand. AAP/David Moir

Tony Abbott declared on Friday that Australia stopped the people smuggling boats “by hook or by crook”. What Abbott wouldn’t say is whether “by hook or by crook” included paying thousands of dollars to turn back a recent boat bound for New Zealand.

The Indonesians are investigating the answer to that, and they’ve already indicated they’ll be less than impressed if it is yes.

In that case, bilateral relations would be again irritated, although not as seriously as by the recent executions of Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, let alone the earlier spying scandal. But the timing is unfortunate – Australia’s ambassador has just returned to Jakarta after being brought back in protest at the killings.

If the payments were made, there are also political implications for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Asked when the story appeared whether the allegation was true, Dutton gave a flat “no”. Bishop, said to be relying on Dutton’s reply, also said no when quizzed.

Reporting the story initially, Fairfax Media said the boat, with 65 people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, had been intercepted by Australian officials late last month, and sent back to the Indonesian island of Rote. The Indonesian police chief there said the captain had told him the six crew members had been given $US5000 each by an Australian customs official, Agus. The crew were said to have been reluctant at first to go back but then did so after the payments.

The boat passengers, in a letter to the New Zealand government, also made the payment claim.

An Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Arrmanatha Nasir, has said his government is concerned if there were payments because this could encourage people smuggling. “We will investigate further. But if that is true, we would truly regret that something like this could happen,” he said.

When Abbott was questioned at length by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on Friday, he erected that familiar barrier: “we don’t comment on operational matters”.

Abbott did say: “our border protection agencies have … been incredibly creative in coming up with a whole range of strategies to break this evil trade”.

Asked whether the government would investigate the claim, Abbott’s answer is alarming for its cavalier attitude to procedure and accountability.

There were “all sorts of things that our security agencies do that they need to do to protect our country and many of those things just should never be discussed in public. Operational matters when it comes to national security are never discussed in public and that’s the way it should be. And what I’m charged with is the protection of our country.”

That is unacceptable on several fronts.

This particular incident is no longer an “operational matter” – it’s over. The “operational” excuse is used too often as a convenience to avoid having to provide explanations. Abbott argues that to talk about operational methods gives information to the people smugglers. One would think if there’s money going, that information would get about pretty quickly regardless.

As for never discussing some of the things agencies do, this risks an attitude of “anything goes because no one will ever hear about it”. The public should know what practices to “protect our country” are permitted and what are not.

Specifically, given the issues involved, we should be told whether the government sanctions handing over payments at sea and whether it was done in this case.

The questions such a practice would raise go to legality, ethics, and consequences.

There will be various views on legality. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young claimed payments “may be highly illegal”.

Regardless of the legal situation, there would be a big ethical problem in giving large bribes to those involved in people smuggling – a trade Abbott on Friday again condemned as “evil”.

At a practical level, while payments might solve an immediate situation, they could form a longer term inducement for people smugglers – a special sort of “sugar on the table”. Boats mightn’t reach their destination but collecting cash during a round trip could be a nice little earner, at least until potential passengers saw through the scam. Or maybe the money could be shared around.

In Abbott’s statement that he’s charged with the protection of the country, he is conflating border protection policy with the fight against terrorism. The overlap is limited but rolling them together makes a greater scare and can be used to reinforce the defence of secrecy.

Around Canberra, well-placed sources who don’t know if the crew were paid say they wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

If they weren’t, why wouldn’t Abbott have referred back to Dutton’s “no” and said the question had been answered, instead of submitting himself to extensive grillings, on radio and at a later news conference, which have only focused attention on the story?

If payments were made, by refusing to come clean Abbott just leaves it to the Indonesians, who are unlikely to be so reticent, to have the next word.