Australian government boat people policy under fire

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's Labor opposition on Sunday claimed the government's boat people policy was in serious disarray after a high-seas stand-off with Indonesia.

The Tony Abbott-led government went into September elections vowing to turn back asylum-seeker boats to Indonesia, where many depart, when safe to do so.

But Jakarta has received the policy coolly and on Saturday Australia was forced to accept a group of about 60 people who were picked up by an Australian vessel south of Java on Thursday after Indonesia refused to take them.

Reports said it was the third time, dating back to September, that Indonesia had declined to have asylum-seekers returned.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the coalition's boat person policy is absolutely not working," Labor leader Bill Shorten told ABC television, despite the number of boat arrivals slowing dramatically in recent months.

Shorten also blasted the "pattern of secrecy" surrounding the government's asylum policies.

The conservative government has adopted a policy of only commenting on boat arrivals at a weekly briefing unless a serious incident occurs, in contrast to Labor, which informed the media regularly when it was in power.

"They're not answering questions about what's happening," he said.

On Saturday Immigration Minister Scott Morrison insisted the request that Indonesia take the asylum-seekers was consistent with standard practice given the incident took place inside its search and rescue zone and close to its coast.

He claimed that on two recent occasions, Indonesia had agreed to these requests and facilitated an on water transfer.

The row over the would-be-refugees comes as tensions between the two countries have been under pressure following a report that Australian missions across Asia, including the one in Jakarta, were involved in a US-led spying network.

Government frontbencher Christopher Pyne on Sunday said he did not believe Indonesia's refusal to take back the asylum-seekers was punishment for these allegations.

"I don't think so," he said, adding that border protection policies were never straightforward.

"There will be times when it zig zags in different directions because that is the nature of this very complicated process," he said.

After winning government, Abbott vowed to make relations with Jakarta a top priority and the prime minister on Saturday said ties were good and improving, although Shorten claimed they had been badly damaged.

"That has got to be a land-speed record for getting things wrong," he said.

The asylum-seekers on the tug-of-war boat were being taken to the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, ahead of a transfer to camps on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island or the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru for processing and resettlement, in line with Australia's hardline policy.