SYDNEY: The front-runner for Australia’s Sept. 7 election would pay Indonesians for unseaworthy boats to stop them ending up in the hands of people-smugglers, as part of a plan unveiled Friday.
Asylum seekers arriving by usually rickety boats, often via transit hubs in Indonesia, are a major political issue in Australia and tend to dominate election campaigns, despite coming in relatively low numbers by global standards.
Tony Abbott, who is leading Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in opinion polls, said he would step up on-the-ground operations in Indonesia with a “community outreach” scheme aimed at disrupting people-smuggling rings.
The 440 million Australian dollars ($397 million) scheme would include a capped government buy-back plan for the leaky fishing vessels as well as stipends for Indonesian “wardens” in 100 villages to provide information to Australia and bounty payments for information leading to successful smuggling prosecutions.
“The important thing is that we stop the boats,” Abbott said in Darwin.
“It’s much better and much more sensible to spend a few thousand dollars in Indonesia than to spend $12 million processing the people who ultimately arrive here,” he said, referring to the figure the opposition claims the government spends processing every boat that arrives.
Abbott refused to “put a figure on” how much he would be prepared to pay per boat and said allowances or bounties would be left to the discretion of “our people on the ground.”
He also pledged $67 million to deploy Australian police operatives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Abbott declined to comment on whether he had spoken to the Indonesian government about his plans, which were ridiculed as “crazy” and “bizarre” by Australia’s ruling Labor party.
“It is absolutely in Indonesia’s interest to stop the boats, I have no reason to think that the Indonesians won’t be prepared to work cooperatively and constructively with us,” he said.
Teuku Faizasyah, spokesman for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, declined to comment on the buy-back plan.
“Abbott and Rudd are in the middle of campaigning, so I think it’s improper to comment on their political statements as it’s part of their efforts to win over voters,” he told AFP.
Both major parties have pledged a crackdown on the issue – Rudd’s Labor government has signed an agreement with Papua New Guinea to banish boatpeople there for permanent resettlement even if found to have a valid refugee claim, effectively closing Australia’s borders to those arriving by boat.
Abbott has argued for a military-led border patrol operation for the heavily trafficked sea corridor between Australia and Java, in Indonesia, and towing boats back where possible.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke rejected Abbott’s latest plans as “simply crazy policy” that would only benefit the Indonesian shipbuilding industry, with no way to buy boats as fast as they could be made.
“Of all the mad ideas I’ve heard in immigration, I think boat buy-back wins,” he said, also noting that Indonesia had one of the largest fishing fleets in the world, with the majority of vessels “used by poor villagers to make a livelihood.”
“I think you can guarantee, absolutely guarantee, that the opposition never tested the boat buy-back policy with the Indonesians because the Indonesians know how big the fishing fleet is for their country,” Burke said.