SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's plan to buy people-smuggling boats from Indonesians to stop them being used to transport asylum-seekers has failed to result in a single sale, a parliamentary hearing heard Tuesday.
Before his election in September, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would pay Indonesians for the leaky fishing vessels used to ferry would-be refugees to Australia, as part of a crackdown on the people-smuggling trade. But the military commander heading the operation to secure Australia's borders, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, told a Senate estimates hearing that no fishing boats had so far been bought.
"All those measures remain available at this stage," he said. "But these measures, the one you're referring to, isn't one the Indonesian government wishes to see being applied right now as part of our cooperative activities - which we respect."
Pressed to explain the measure further, Campbell said: "It's not one that we are working with the Indonesian government cooperatively on right now."
Thousands of would-be refugees stage perilous sea journeys each year from Indonesia in a desperate attempt to reach Australia. Many have died when the rickety vessels sank. During the election campaign Mr Abbott proposed a government plan to buy dangerously unsafe vessels as well as turn back asylum-seeker boats when it was safe to do so, an idea received coolly by Jakarta.
"We stand by all our policies," Mr Abbott said in parliament on Tuesday when questioned about the boat purchase proposal.
The opposition Labor Party had criticised it as "crazy policy" given that Indonesia has one of the world's largest fishing fleets.
"We stand by all of them because... they are working. The boats have not entirely stopped but they are stopping." Asylum-seeker boat arrivals have dropped dramatically under Abbott's government, which has maintained the policy of the former Labor administration under which all those arriving by boat face resettlement in Papua New Guinea or Nauru or returning home.
They will not be resettled in Australia even if granted refugee status.
Tensions between Australia and Indonesia are currently strained by claims that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's phone was spied on by Australian intelligence in 2009.
Mr Abbott on Tuesday said he regretted any embarrassment these reports had caused the president, but stopped short of apologising to the vital strategic partner.