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Tony Abbott defends silence on asylum boats

Prime Minister tells 2GB radio listeners that less government talk over asylum boats helps the process of stopping them.

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott remains unapologetic about his government's approach to information about asylum seeker boats, saying he would rather be criticised for being ''a bit of a closed book'' and stop the boats, than release more information about the Coalition's policy.

His comments come after the federal government's refusal to comment on reports that Australian authorities have recently turned back two asylum seeker vessels to Indonesia and ongoing criticism from Labor and the Greens about the lack of public information on boats policy.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott: ''The point is not to provide sport for public discussion, the point is to stop the boats.'' Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Mr Abbott told 2GB Radio on Thursday morning that the government did not want to give rise to ''mischief making'' - a reference to the Coalition's argument that providing information about boat arrivals and asylum seeker operations would help people smugglers.

''I'd rather be criticised for being a bit of a closed book on this issue and actually stop the boats,'' he said.

''The point is not to provide sport for public discussion, the point is to stop the boats.''

When asked why the government did not announce if boats have been turned back to Indonesia, the Prime Minister replied: ''If boats were coming at the rate of 50,000 illegal arrivals a year, which was the case in July and if now they're hardly coming at all, obviously some things have changed.''

Victorian Coalition MP Sharman Stone backed the government's approach to information, arguing it was necessary to stop people getting on boats to Australia.

''We know for a fact, because we've been told by the people smugglers themselves, that they were using the day to day information about which boats had landed on Christmas Island, how many had been processed as asylum seekers... How quickly they were getting their permanent residency and so on,'' Dr Stone told ABC Radio in Melbourne.

''That information was like pamphlets or marketing information if you like, to their customers.''

Dr Stone said she ''absolutely'' supported Mr Morrison's ''process''.

"(People smugglers) were using Australian information released into the media to say, look we had 16 boats successful last week, this isn't going to be a problem for you," she said. 

Dr Stone said people smugglers had also used photos of people landing in Australia, "big smiles on their faces, being picked out of the water or picked off the boats by the Navy".

Mr Abbott's comments also come after the head of Indonesia's military said he had reached a private agreement with the Australian Defence Force to accept boat turn-backs as a way to defuse the diplomatic row over the policy.

General Moeldoko said late on Tuesday that boat turn-backs by Australia were ''justifiable'' as he had spoken to Australia's military commander on the issue - apparently referring to Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley.

''He told me that Indonesia should understand if Australia drove back undocumented migrants attempting to enter the country using Indonesian boats or if any Indonesians were found aboard,'' General Moeldoko reportedly said. ''I have agreed. Therefore, we don't need to feel offended.''

When asked how Australia's relationship with Indonesia was tracking, Mr Abbott alluded to the meeting between the two military leaders.

''There are enormous levels of exchange and understanding between Australia and Indonesia as evidenced by the discussion that seems to have taken place between General Moeldoko and our own General Hurley not long ago,'' he said on Thursday.

But General Moeldoko's comments appear to be at odds with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's stance on the issue. Dr Natalegawa told the Jakarta Post on Wednesday that Indonesia did not support ''the push back policy''.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the Abbott government needed to stop ‘‘hiding the truth and start answering the most basic questions’’ about what it was doing with asylum seeker boats on the high seas.

‘‘It isn't right that Australians need to buy the Jakarta Post to find out what the Australian government is doing,’’ said Mr Shorten, in a press conference in Melbourne.

‘‘It's time for the Abbott government to stop hiding the boats,’’ he added. ‘‘If the policies are good, and if they're working, then why keep them a secret?’’

Mr Shorten took aim at the Immigration Minister, saying that when Scott Morrison was in opposition ‘‘you couldn't open the door without tripping over him doing a media interview’’.

‘‘Now he's in witness protection,’’ Mr Shorten said, referring to Mr Morrison's indication that he had cancelled his weekly press conferences on border security.

On Thursday, ABC Radio reported that two asylum seekers claimed their boats had been towed back as opposed to turned back.

During his first trip to Jakarta in October, Mr Abbott was at pains to point out that the government was not considering towing boats back to Indonesia but turning them back.

‘‘Can I just scotch this idea that the Coalition's policy is or ever has been tow-backs. Our policy, which we've repeated till we're blue in the face, is that we reserve the right to turn boats around where it is safe to do so,’’ he said.

One man, identified as Sudanese asylum seeker Yusuf, said his boat was towed for about five days over the new year.

Another, identified as Somali asylum seeker Marke, said his boat had been towed in early December.

with Jonathan Swan