Tony Abbott's Government has declared it will do whatever it takes to deal with niggling problems related to immigration, citizenship and national security. In the case of boat-loads of asylum seekers, he has all but confirmed that this excuses Australian intelligence officials paying cash to crew to turn the vessels around and head back to Indonesia. Such a policy combines moral bankruptcy and counter-productiveness in equal and forlorn measure. Yet Mr Abbott's refusal to deny the claims made by an Indonesian police chief, and others, indicates it is indeed happening.

The people-smuggling boat that sparked the revelations has a New Zealand connection. It was the vessel containing 65 asylum seekers, mainly Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, that John Key insisted was headed here. The six crew are said to have been paid US$5000 each to turn the boat around. The asylum seekers, who ended up wrecked on a remote Indonesia island before being held in a detention centre in West Timor, subsequently appealed to the New Zealand Government for help.

But that association was not enough to draw Mr Key into comment on Mr Abbott's policy. This was, he said, "a matter for Australia". That was a wise approach given it would have been difficult to be anything but critical. First, there is the signal it sends to the people smugglers. It provides an incentive for the dispatch of more boats, many of which will not be seaworthy. More lives will be imperilled. And when more boats set sail, what will be the Australian response? To increase the amount of taxpayer money offered to the people smugglers to persuade them to turn back?

Mr Abbott says Australia "will do whatever is necessary, within the law, consistent with our standards as a decent and humane society, to stop the boats". But how can the payment of what are essentially bribes fit that bill? Indeed, it is doubtful if paying people smugglers is even lawful, let alone ethical. The Commonwealth Criminal Code prohibits people smuggling. The Government policy means Australian money is effectively supporting criminal operations.

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There is also the matter of Australia's reputation. It has been harshly criticised for a hard-line stance that centres on turning back the boats and offshore detention centres. The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights said he was bewildered by the widespread "hostility and contempt" to asylum seekers among Australian politicians. That attitude has been underlined by the revelation that payments to people smugglers started four years ago under the Labor Government.

That money appears to have been outlaid for information about the people smugglers' operations, or to dissuade them from launching boats. Mr Abbott has taken the payments to another level. Presumably, his Government calculates that the dollars paid will be fewer than those required to process people smuggled into the country. Australians are none the wiser, however. Their Prime Minister is evading questions by insisting this is an "operational matter". That is little wonder given such an abject abandonment of good government.