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It is thought that when John Howard was Prime Minister a model of payment was developed for stopping the boats. Payments were made in Indonesia to those who controlled the people smuggling trade, namely senior local army, navy and police officers. Payments may have gone higher up the chain of command. People smugglers were in the payments loop.

It worked so well that by 2006 the boats had all but stopped. Payments were apparently organised by Australian agencies that had dealings with Indonesian officials in the normal course of events over issues relating to people smuggling. Needless to say these transactions were just as corrupt for the givers as the receivers.

When Rudd came to power the arrangement seems to have changed, either by decision or by default. Rudd’s mishandling of the Oceanic Viking incident may have had something to do with it.
However whatever the results it was expensive and has not been revived, at least not to the extent that it was before.

So in making payments to turn back boats Abbott may well have had a precedent to guide him.

This leads into the unusual way in which news of the payments was handled by Abbott. He had the opportunity to deny that money was exchanged for the service of transporting refugees to Indonesia but he chose not to, instead crowing about his record as chief harbourmaster and quarantine officer and lord of the admiralty in stopping the boats. The telling line was that he would do whatever it takes to stop the boats. It was a frightening thought, given the utter lack of morality that has so far governed the ‘policy’.

Under Howard many such matters were handled by agencies including the AFP, all receiving the broadest of instructions from Howard’s office. There was a suspicion that this was deliberate, and that the intention was to provide Howard with the cover of plausible deniability. That culture has continued under the Abbott government with its abhorrence of accountability and tendency to hide behind the ‘war’ on terror to avoid proper scrutiny and at the same time extend the power of the state.

Could the plan to bribe people smugglers into returning to Indonesia have been hatched within the Prime Minister’s office and been undertaken with the minimum involvement of departments and agencies other than a handful of Abbott trusties?

Abbott, in his own inimitable fashion, seems pretty smug and pleased with himself. He gives every indication that these dumb payments were his own idea or at least one hatched up with cronies and loyal advisers.

In making these payments neither people smugglers nor their Indonesian minders were involved. These payments were made to the crew, in what seems in money terms a very cheap operation when compared to what was apparently going on before.

At the local official level Indonesia appears to have been well outside the loop in terms of information and money.

Of course it goes without saying that undertaking such a course of action ignores international and domestic law, ethical behaviour, morality and human rights. It also makes hollow the claim that Abbott and is concerned about deaths at sea. In any case his recent response to Rohingya people trapped at sea on boats demonstrated he has no concern for the safety and welfare of refugees.

Abbott appears to have over reached himself and I for one hope he is brought to account.