Cash payments have been made to members of Indonesian people-smuggling rings by Australian intelligence officials for at least the past four years – including under the former Labor government, Fairfax Media has learnt.
Multiple sources have said that such payments have been part of successive governments’ tactics, though not always as part of boat turnbacks, which were not used by the previous government.
The issue exploded into the public sphere with the claim last week – reported by Fairfax Media – that Australian officials paid $US5000 each to six crew members of an asylum-seeker boat crew to return the vessel to Indonesia.
Labor has gone on the offensive over the claim. But at least one former Labor immigration minister knew of payments under his watch, it is understood.
Fairfax Media has been told that the practice of intelligence agency officials paying members of people-smuggling networks including boat owners and crews goes back to about 2010 under the then Rudd government.
Instances include paying members of syndicates for information about the operations of the syndicate, or to dissuade them from launching boats.
Asked to guarantee that no payments were made to people smugglers under Labor, a spokeswoman for shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles said: “It’s unlawful for the government or the opposition to divulge security or intelligence information.”
She indicated that the issue was the confusion created by the initial denials by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that were followed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s refusal to comment on operational grounds.
“Last week an allegation surfaced that people smugglers were being paid by Australian officials. This was flatly denied by the immigration and foreign ministers.
“These denials have been at complete odds with comments from the Prime Minister.
“This chaos risks creating a dangerous new pull factor.”
She said Labor would “not pay people smugglers to keep people on unsafe boats and neither should the government”.
The claim has sparked further tension between Canberra and Jakarta, with the Indonesian government demanding answers.
A spokesman for another former Labor immigration minister, Chris Bowen, referred Fairfax Media to the statement of Mr Marles’ spokeswoman.
Comment has also been sought from former immigration ministers Tony Burke and Brendan O’Connor.
Labor tactics saw the issue of whether Australia has paid people smugglers dominate question time on Monday.
Ms Bishop, Mr Abbott and Mr Dutton remained steadfast in their refusal to answer questions, citing intelligence, security and operational reasons.
Pressed again on the issue on Tuesday morning, Mr Abbott said Australia “will do whatever is necessary, within the law, consistent with our standards as a decent and humane society to stop the boats”.
“I am absolutely confident that at all times Australian agencies have acted within the law,” Mr Abbott said. “I am in the business of supporting our agencies, not undermining them.”