People smuggler payment scandal: Turnbacks are the real crime

The reports that the Coalition government paid six asylum boat crew over $6000 each to return asylum seekers to Indonesia has made dramatic news headlines around Australia and the world.

The incident did expose the hypocrisy and corruption of the Australian government. Abbott is usually howling about “people smugglers’ business models” but had no problems with such a business to ferry asylum seekers back to Indonesia. But the real crime was intercepting the boat on the high seas and turning it back, not paying the boat crew.

The focus on paying the people smugglers only reinforced the negative stereotypes and cemented the idea that people smuggling is a crime, when asylum seekers have no choice but to use boats because there is no other way to get to safety.

Tellingly, Labor’s attack on Abbott paying the people smugglers evaporated when it was revealed that Labor was involved in the same kind of dirty disruption tactics when it was in office. In 2009, the Rudd Labor government gave $21 million to ASIS to use for disruption operations in Indonesia.

Shorten was left spluttering at a press conference, “…when it comes to security matters, we simply don’t comment”—an adoption of the Coalition’s line that they can’t comment on “operational matters”.

It’s no crime to seek asylum and it should be no crime to bring the boats. Labor could have explicitly opposed the turnback policy, it could have committed a Labor government to end the ban on Australia accepting refugees from Indonesia. But Labor’s “me-tooism” with Abbott on refugee policy leaves it hopelessly compromised.

By Ian Rintoul

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