Given the Prime Minister's repeated warnings that it was only a matter of time before a boat-load of asylum seekers was headed for New Zealand, you would think John Key would have had a lot to say now that such a vessel appears to have seriously intended steering such a course.

Whether the boat would have reached its destination had it not been caught by Australian authorities is another matter. The more pressing question is whether - as claimed by some of those crowded on board - Australian border patrol officers paid crew members to turn the boat around and head back to Indonesia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ducked questions, neither confirming nor denying the claims, but adding that border protection officials had been "incredibly creative" in coming up with strategies to stop people smugglers. That has only given more credence to the asylum-seekers' claims of payments.

Key was unusually reticent yesterday when the subject was raised during his regular Monday morning round of radio and television interviews and his post-Cabinet press conference.


Bar saying New Zealand officials had known of the boat's whereabouts, Key gave the impression of someone who had completely lost interest in the matter - to the point that he would not be raising it the next time he and Abbott spoke.

That is hard to believe. But Key had little choice but to put some distance between himself and Abbott's handling of the matter. Key would have been acutely conscious that saying too much risked his being dragged into one of the most heated issues in Australian politics. Moreover, it is one of the few issues where the Abbott Government can justifiably claim some major success.

The wrong word or phrase from Key would have had him embarrassing or undermining Abbott - or both. The boat may have been heading this way, but Key has wiped his hands of it by saying the question of payments to people smugglers is "a matter for Australia" without adding the obvious - good transtasman relations matter far more to New Zealand.

Furthermore, should the furore further damage the already troubled relationship between Australia and Indonesia, the last thing Key wants is to be put in an invidious position which ends up with New Zealand having to take sides.