Part of the united rhetoric of the Coalition and Labor is to condemn people smugglers. Both sides of politics describe people smugglers as “evil” and as “the scum of the earth”.
We need to put to one side whether that generalisation is correct or not, because it automatically consigns Oskar Schindler and Dietrich Bonnhoeffer to the worst category of infamy.
If the Coalition are genuine in their judgment of people smugglers, it would be a very strange thing to do business with them. But on radio 3AW this morning, Abbott had a revealing exchange with Neil Mitchell. He tried repeatedly to duck the issue, but he appeared to concede that the government has paid people smugglers to return their customers to Indonesia. The conversation included the following exchanges:
“Mitchell: 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 but we are determined to ensure that illegal boats don’t get to Australia and we will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from people smuggling and from the effect of this evil and damaging trade that cost lives.
Mitchell: 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, …”
“Mitchell: I don’t know about the relationship with Indonesia. They’re saying today they’re shocked by the allegations we paid people smugglers. Are we at least investigating whether it happened?
Abbott: Neil, I want to say to you and your listeners that I am proud of the work that our border protection agencies have done. I really am proud of the work that they’ve done and they’ve been incredibly creative in coming up with a whole range of strategies to break this evil trade …
Mitchell: Will we investigate whether it happened?
Abbott: As I said by hook or by crook we are going to stop the trade, we have stopped the trade, and we will do what we have to do to ensure that it stays stopped.
Mitchell: 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. …”
“Mitchell: Prime minister, will the Australian government investigate whether it happened?
Abbott: Um, Neil, what we are doing is saving life at sea. We are defending our national sovereignty, we are protecting our country from the evil trade of people smuggling and by hook or by crook we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe and to keep this evil trade stopped. …”
Mitchell did well to get as far as he did. It was as close to an admission as he was going to get. Abbott’s refusal to deny the allegation effectively amounts to an admission.
Abbott’s contempt for people smugglers is hardly a secret. It is an act of the basest hypocrisy that he would allow his government to pay them anything at all for any service at all.
Hypocrisy in politics is pretty common, so this could just be “business as usual”. But it goes deeper than that. Abbott’s primary justification for condemning people smugglers is that they cause deaths: he is so worried about boat people drowning that he is willing to punish the ones who don’t. The reason they drown, so he argues, is that people smugglers are cruel, heartless and careless. Why then does he think it a good thing to pay the people smugglers to take their passengers back along their perilous voyage? Surely, if his concern was the safety of boat people, he would have them rescued from the smugglers as quickly as possible.
On Abbott’s argument, prolonging the time boat people spend in the hands of people smugglers increases their risk of drowning. But he is willing to pay the people smugglers to take their passengers further.
And of course we are not allowed to know the consequences of his willingness to deal with the Devil. If boat people drown as a result of the payment, we won’t be told because it is an “on-water” matter. And if they don’t drown, we won’t be told, because that would contradict the government’s main narrative.
On any view of it, for the Abbott government to countenance payment of people smugglers is genuinely astonishing, and casts doubt not only on its own integrity but also on the sincerity of its arguments for “stopping the boats”