"Australian aid should never be a free gift": Opposition Leader Tony Abbott (right), with immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has expressed concern about Labor's deal with Papua New Guinea. Photo: Jason South
A Coalition government would use much of Kevin Rudd's PNG solution as part of a suite of disincentive measures including turning back boats at sea to end the people-smuggling trade to Australia.
But it might first have some fence-mending to do with Australia's closest neighbour, after senior figures including Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and immigration spokesman Scott Morrison were seen to make comments disrespectful of PNG, and its Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill.
With the debate raging, Port Moresby's representative in Australia, Charles Lepani, took the unusual step on Wednesday of reminding politicians not to make unhelpful generalisations about his country.
Mr Morrison has confirmed the PNG arrangement to send all boat arrivals to Manus Island, and have all refugees resettled in PNG, would be continued under an Abbott-led government, and would be allied with his pledge to turn boats around on the high seas when safe to do so.
The hybrid policy using the main features of Labor and Coalition policies would enable Australia to present the twin threat to people-smugglers - turning back boats and referrals to PNG - offering arguably the best hope of stopping asylum seekers' attempts to reach Australia.
Mr Morrison said the Coalition had grave doubts about the ''operability'' of Labor's PNG deal, but also acknowledged it would form part of its policy response to the boat problem if elected.
''To the extent the policy can be implemented, it would be implemented by the Coalition, we would salvage what we could, to complement our many other measures,'' he said.
But ''it is by no means a substitute for our policies, as the government claims'', he said. ''To be clear, we are not endorsing the policy in its current form, but we would seek to salvage what we can.''
The dual disincentive could result in the occupants of intercepted boats faced with a Hobson's choice: either proceed to claim asylum and be transferred to Manus Island or agree to turn around and head back to Indonesia.
The opposition, however, has been deeply critical of the deal signed between Canberra and Port Moresby, arguing it has come at the cost of surrendering control of Australia's half a billion dollars of annual aid allocation to PNG.
It cited Mr O'Neill's public comments and even its own normally confidential talks with him to support that claim.
''Australian aid should never be a free gift to a foreign government,'' Mr Abbott had said on Tuesday.
''We should never be making simple cash advances to a foreign government.''
Ms Bishop directly referred to talks she held with Mr O'Neill after the deal was signed, to support her assertion that Australia had handed over its aid budget with no strings attached.
Asked what Mr O'Neill had said privately about assuming full control, Ms Bishop responded: ''Precisely what he said to the PNG people on Monday. That they have control over the entire aid budget in so far as it relates to PNG.''
The comments, and others made by critics of the arrangement, have been read as a slight on PNG, triggering an unusually frank rebuke from Mr Lepani.
''The high commissioner of Papua New Guinea to Australia, today warned Australian politicians to observe international protocols and courtesies when discussing relations with other friendly sovereign nations and not impugn the dignity of our leaders who are attempting to assist Australia in this very complex regional and international issue of asylum seekers,'' he wrote.