Is the Australian government paying criminals?

This week reports emerged that the Australian navy paid people smugglers to take their human cargo back to Indonesia. Three sailors arrested in Indonesia stated that when their boat was intercepted by the navy, they were paid 5000 USD each to turn around. Their story is backed up by migrants on the boat in question, interviewed by the UN, and the Indonesian government is investigating.

The reports have not been denied by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who in a revealing interview repeatedly dodged the question. This is how the interview went:

Interviewer: These allegations that Australia paid people smugglers to turn back the boats – did it happen or not?
Abbott: Well, Neil, we don’t comment on operational matters…

Interviewer: But surely we wouldn’t pay people smugglers, they’re criminals?
Abbott: Well, what we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook…

Interviewer: Will the Australian government investigate whether it happened?
Abbott: The short answer is the Australian government will do whatever we need to do to keep this evil trade stopped.
Mitchell: Including paying people smugglers?
Abbott: We will do whatever we need to do to keep this trade stopped because that’s what the public expects…

Reading between the lines, this is essentially seems like Abbott saying ‘yes, this happened, but it was worth it because the ends justify the means’. If such an outrageous charge was known to be untrue, Abbott would surely have denied it vehemently. Interestingly, this clashes with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s statement that the incident didn’t happen, possibly indicating that the government isn’t exactly on the same page in their response.

If the incident did take place, then it is deeply wrong and misguided on three levels – practical, moral, and legal. Firstly, Abbott’s entire strategy of ‘stop the boats’ is intended to destroy the business model of the people smugglers by making it clear that migrants will never be allowed to resettle in Australia. However, if people smugglers realise that the Australian navy will secretly pay them to return to Indonesia, then that provides a real incentive to continue to take the most desperate migrants towards Australia, only to then dash their hopes and make a quick buck off the Australian taxpayer. It makes a complete joke of Abbott’s strategy.

Then there’s the more serious moral issue. This government has repeatedly categorised people smugglers as ‘scum of the earth’, and what they are doing is criminal under Australian law. This then means that the Australian government would be paying off criminals who are exploiting some of the world’s most desperate people. This leaves the migrants thousands of dollars out of pocket to the people smugglers and no closer to Australia, while ensuring that the ‘scum of the earth’ are making a double profit. It also shows a complete disregard for the safety of the migrants on board. This of course only builds on the overall moral bankruptcy of the government’s policy.

Finally, if the navy paid people smugglers to turn back to Indonesia, with the knowledge of the government, then they’re breaking Australian law. By paying the smugglers (people involved in illegal activity), the navy was providing material resources and therefore supporting the crime of people smuggling, moving people across an international border illegally. Legal experts have also said that “If a state such as Australia is making that payment that would be seen as tantamount to people smuggling.”

This is the sort of thing that should lead to governments resigning – counterproductive, immoral and illegal activities being carried out in secret. And it’s that secrecy which makes it hard to know whether this certainly happened, and makes it easy for this sort of illegal activity to arise. Ever since Abbott came to power all activities carried out against asylum seekers arriving by boat has been shrouded in secrecy and carried out by the military. This is not how a democracy behaves. Out at sea and out of sight, Abbott’s government is taking a course further and further away from both legal and moral norms.

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