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The Coalition's asylum seeker policy is ''cruel'' and ''harsh'' but so are all asylum seeker policies, according to opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull.
''Our policy is a harsh one, it really is,'' he said during a Fairfax interview and web forum on Monday. ''All of the policies to deal with asylum seekers and people smuggling are harsh, cruel in fact.
''But the problem is the status quo is cruel. It is analogous to what people say about the Middle East: there is no shortage of bad options here.
''You have to work out the least cruel, most effective, most efficient means of depriving the people smuggler of a product to sell.''
Mr Turnbull's comments came as the 209 occupants of an asylum seekers' boat were met by navy ships on Monday, to be transferred to Christmas Island. The boat was about halfway between Indonesia and Christmas Island on Sunday when it sent a distress call about 8am, with reports it was sinking. HMAS Parramatta ''rendered assistance''.
The boat had the biggest passenger load of any asylum seeker boat since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his ''PNG solution'' in July. A separate boat, carrying about 48 people and three crew, was intercepted by HMAS Bundaberg north-west of Christmas Island on Sunday.
On Monday night news of a third boat broke, with Border Protection Command reporting HMAS Pirie assisted a suspected asylum seeker boat carrying 129 passengers and two crew. The three most recent boats are the first to arrive after a four-day break.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said on Monday he did not think boat arrivals were dropping off in the wake of the Rudd government's PNG plan announced in July.
''I accept that there will be surges and there will be lulls,'' he said in Sydney. ''The problem is that this government's [PNG plan] is already overwhelmed by the tide of boat arrivals since Mr Rudd first made the announcement.''
In northern NSW, Mr Rudd dismissed questions about his PNG plan, including weekend reports that PNG had not agreed to resettle all asylum seekers in the country.
''It's very plain, it's there in black and white in the agreement … that I signed with Prime Minister Peter O'Neill,'' he said. He had not heard of an alternative to his resettlement plan that would reduce the number of people drowning at sea.
''It is the right conclusion,'' he said.
During his Fairfax web forum, Mr Turnbull also said he ''wouldn't disown'' any ambitions to become prime minister.
But he said he thought that it was unlikely to happen.
Asked if he still had leadership ambitions, he said: ''I certainly wouldn't disown it. I don't think anyone in the house of reps would disown it … but I don't think it's very likely.''