SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian authorities work within the law to stop asylum seeker boats, Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted on Tuesday after reports emerged that officials have made cash payments to members of people smuggling rings for years.
The government has refused to deny reports that six Indonesian crew members were paid US$5,000 ($6,735) each to return an asylum seeker vessel to Indonesia in late May, saying no comment will be made on operational issues.
Indonesia has pushed for answers, with Vice-President Jusuf Kalla warning on Monday that paying people smugglers would amount to "bribery".
Abbott said while Australia would do "whatever is necessary" to crack down on people smuggling, he was confident officials had worked within the law.
"The most moral thing you can do here is stop the boats because as long as the boats are coming the evil people smuggling trade is in business and the deaths continue," Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
"So we've done the right thing, we've done the moral thing, the decent thing, the compassionate thing. We've stopped the boats by doing whatever is necessary within the law to stop the boats."
Further reports emerged on Tuesday, with The Sydney Morning Herald quoting multiple sources for payments made by intelligence officials to those involved in people smuggling over at least four years, including under the previous Labor government.
The issue of people smuggling boats sailing from Indonesia to Australia has been a sensitive one between Canberra and Jakarta for years, but particularly since Abbott committed to turning back boats to Indonesia.
The latest controversy comes after relations were strained by Indonesia's execution of two Australian drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, after they spent a decade on death row.
But Abbott said ties with Indonesia remained strong.
"I am in the business of building a strong relationship with Indonesia, not aggravating things," he said.
Australia has a hardline policy to stop the flow of people smuggling boats which includes refusing to resettle asylum-seekers who arrive on unauthorised boats even if they are found to be genuine refugees.
They are instead detained in immigration camps on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, despite harsh criticism from rights groups.