- Claims people smuggler boats paid to turn back
- Indonesia to investigate payment claims
- Abbott does not deny payments made to people smugglers
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repeatedly dodged new questions about whether Australian officials paid people smugglers thousands of dollars to return 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia, only saying that his government is "prepared to do what is necessary to keep the boats stopped".
Mr Abbott was asked four questions about the payment claims in Canberra on Sunday, including whether Australian taxpayers should know whether the government was funding a criminal syndicate.
The prime minister was also asked whether the Australian government would be launching an investigation into the claims, given the United Nations has now interviewed the asylum seekers who allegedly witnessed the handover of money.
"Again I keep making the point the only question that matters is, is this government prepared to do what is necessary to keep the boats stopped, the answer is yes."
He was then asked whether he believed it "didn't matter" that Australia was paying off people smugglers.
"What I am saying is that we keep the boats stopped," he said. "That's the important thing. We will do whatever is reasonably necessary consistent with the principles of a decent and humane society to keep the boats stopped. That's what we will do."
"Unfortunately we know the Labor party will start them up again. It's interesting the Labor party is now asking about people smugglers and their financing. The Labor party put the people smugglers into business."
Mr Abbott's comments on Sunday marked a significant change in language used about the allegations since he fronted media on Friday refusing to confirm or deny whether the payments had happened.
Earlier it was revealed that the United Nations had interviewed asylum seekers in Indonesia who repeated allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers thousands of dollars to return to Indonesia.
James Lynch, the regional director of the UNHCR said that the asylum seekers also claimed they were held on a Customs vessel for four days before being put on two blue boats and returned to Indonesia.
"The boat that was rescued by the Indonesian navy on 31 May - we have interviewed the 65 passengers and they have said that the crew received a payment," said Mr Lynch told the BBC.
"What we were told - this is unconfirmed - but what we were told by the 65 passengers is that they were intercepted by a naval vessel from Australia. And then they were transferred to a customs boat where they spent four days. And then they were put on two blue boats and then sent back to Indonesia," he said.
The head of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres has strongly criticised Australia saying the country should not be paying off criminal gangs.
"We need to crack down on smuggling and trafficking: not paying to them, but putting them in jail whenever possible, or prosecuting them," he told the BBC.
"But at the same time protecting the victims, and with each country assuming also its responsibilities in relation to the protection of refugees," he said.
On Sunday morning, a number of government ministers refused to confirm or deny if people smugglers were paid by Australian officials, citing "on water" matters.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann deflected all questions on whether payments had been made to the crew, instead blaming Labor for its failure to "stop the boats".
Speaking on Channel Ten's Bolt show, Mr Pyne said:
Early last week the Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop both denied the payments had occurred.
When asked by Andrew Bolt why both ministers had commented on the operation matters saying the payments were false, Mr Pyne said: "Well that's a matter for them."
Despite his denial, Mr Dutton said "from day one" the government did not comment on specific operations.
"The government will always do the right thing by the Australian people, we will act within the law, we will act within our international obligations," he said on Sunday.
"But from day one we have not commented on specific operations. We provide details at a time which is operationally appropriate but we don't comment outside of that.
"That has been the case since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced and it's part of the reason we have had significant success in being about to stop the boats."
Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles said if the allegations proved to be true, Mr Dutton would be "seriously injured" as a politician.
"If it turns out this has occurred and the immigration minister denied it up front, the immigration minister has a serious problem," Mr Marles told ABC's Insiders show.
"Not just in terms of policy but personally as the minister he has a serious problem and we need to get to the bottom of this."
Mr Marles called for a transparent investigation into the claims, saying it was further straining Australia's relationship with Indonesia.
"It is no small matter here, this is clearly now having an impact on our relationship with Indonesia, that the Foreign Minister of Indonesia has raised this with our Ambassador to Indonesia, just highlights the fact it is on their mind," he said.
Mr Abbott had refused to comment on the payment claims on Friday, which some political commentators interpreted as confirming the story.
"Every time we comment on operational matters we give information to our enemies. We give information to people who want to do the wrong thing by our country," he said.