June 17, 2015 11:49 pm JST
Australia refugees controversy

Anger as Abbott refuses to discuss people smuggling 'bribery' claims

SHANE WORRELL, Contributing writer

Prime Minister Tony Abbott slips his glasses back on during a question time at Parliament House in Canberra. © Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The conservative government of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rejected a parliamentary request for an explanation of why officials apparently paid human traffickers to take refugee boats out of Australian waters, citing "national security" concerns.

   In the Senate on Wednesday, Attorney-General George Brandis scoffed at a request submitted by senators for the government to produce documents showing whether taxpayers' money had been used to pay bribes.

   "It's certainly not the practice of any political party in this country ... to bring into the Senate and to table documents relating to the national security of Australia," Brandis said.

   Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator for the Greens, a minority party, described the government's refusal to cooperate as "shameless."

   "Will the Senate consider this contempt [of parliament]?" she asked shortly after Brandis's comment. Hanson-Young had earlier commented:"Either this happened or it didn't. The idea that the government is prepared to leave lingering the possibility that Australians have paid people smugglers or people traffickers is just extraordinary."

   For the best part of a week, Abbott has refused to confirm or deny allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers tens of thousands of dollars to turn a boat back towards Indonesia. The prime minister says that his government does not discuss "operational matters" at sea. However, his refusal to dismiss the claims has fueled speculation that something is being covered up.

   The allegations surfaced early this month after the Indonesian navy intercepted a boat in its waters. The six crew members aboard later told Indonesian police that Australian officials had paid them $5,000 each to leave Australian waters. The officials, the crew claimed, helped transfer them to another boat before accompanying them back to Indonesian territory.

   Adding weight to the allegations, United Nations officials said last week that the 65 passengers aboard the boat also believed that Australian officials had paid the crew.

   "What we do is stop the boats, by hook or by crook. I just don't want to go into the details of how it's done," Abbott said in a radio interview. He maintained this position in further media appearances and in parliament, adding that his government would continue to do "whatever is necessary" to stop the boats.

    As the media's pursuit of the matter intensified, with some speculating that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service may have been involved, Abbott said he was "absolutely confident" that officials had acted within the law at all times. However, the prime minister has not addressed the specific claims of cash payments.

   Abbott's conservative Liberal/National Party coalition came to power in late 2013 vowing to "stop the boats" that were bringing migrants to Australia. Vessels carrying asylum seekers no longer reach Australian shores, and the government claims that while 1,100 people died at sea as a result of the previous Labor government's policies on refugee boats, none has died since it took power.

   However, human rights groups are growing increasingly concerned about the secrecy surrounding Abbott's policy, and its impact on the migrants involved. A common retort to the government's claims of success is that the asylum seekers are simply dying somewhere else, out of view.

    Concerns about Australia's immigration policies have also been mounting overseas, spurred by the bribery claims.

UN official "shocked"

"I would certainly be shocked if any government did that sort of thing," Thomas Vargas, the Indonesia representative of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told local media in Australia. "There have been other countries who have done this sort of pushback, but handing over payments by government to smugglers is something that I have not heard of before."

   Tensions also appear to be rising between Canberra and Jakarta, in spite of Abbott's claims that his policy of stopping the boats has improved Australia's relationship with Indonesia.

   Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla used the word "bribery" when referring recently to the alleged payments, while Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said the claims, if true, would represent a "new low" for Australia. "We have been consistently saying they are on a slippery slope," he said.

   Indonesian police have provided Australian media with photographs of the alleged smugglers with piles of cash, telling journalists to use them to get answers from their government.

   The latest allegations add to a growing list of spats between Australia and Indonesia in the past few years. In 2013, the two countries fell out over allegations that Australia had tapped the phones of Indonesian officials, including former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. When Jakarta executed two Australians for drug smuggling in April, Canberra temporarily withdrew its ambassador.

   Elsewhere in the region, Canberra has been heavily criticized for providing more than $40 million Australian dollars ($30.74 million) in aid to Cambodia -- one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Southeast Asia -- in return for a deal to resettle refugees. If allegations that it pays people smugglers linger, Australia's credibility throughout the region seems likely to suffer further.

   "You look at the way this has been handled . . . and the way it's played in international media, it hasn't done well for the perception broadly of Australia's political leadership," said Holly Ransom, outgoing chair of a youth forum organized under the auspices of the G20 group of large economies.

    Jonathan Bogais, a political sociologist specializing in Southeast Asia at the University of Sydney, said that if the allegations of cash payments were substantiated, Australia's reputation would "hit a new low." Australia's leaders were setting "new standards of protectionism for others to copy," Bogais added.

   "The ultra-conservatism of Australia's leadership -- transfixed by the distant specter of militant Islamism, its aggressive rhetoric towards China, its aid program contorted to fit changing domestic politics amid increasing militarization -- are all factors already raising concerns among its neighbors," he said.

   The Labor opposition, however, seems unlikely to want to push the matter too far. Allegations have surfaced in the past week that previous governments, under Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, also paid people smugglers, though not to turn boats around.

   Even so, Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles warned on Monday that the allegations were affecting diplomatic relations with Indonesia. Marles told Australian media that he "would have thought it was a clear matter to deny the proposition that we would not be paying people smugglers."

   With an eye on the next election, due by the end of 2016, the government appears likely to ignore such criticism. Following a long period of relative unpopularity and an internal party division that nearly cost Abbott his leadership in February, the government seems convinced that its approach to protecting its borders will help it win a second term in power. 

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

Resubscribe now to continue reading.
BEST OFFER:
Only US$ 9.99 per month for a full-year subscription

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.