What Tony Abbott's boat rhetoric is really about

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking at a public function Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Turning a weakness into a strength: Tony Abbott is using the oldest trick in the book

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's refusal to confirm or deny allegations that Australian officials paid asylum boat crews to turn back to Indonesia has got many wondering about his choice of words.

Migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka were reportedly heading to New Zealand last month when an Australian navy ship intercepted them and an immigration official paid each member of the crew A$5,000 ($3,900; £2,500) to turn back to Indonesia.

When the story came to light a few days ago, Mr Abbott side-stepped questions about its veracity, saying instead Australia had developed "incredibly creative" strategies to deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Asked if he would pay people smugglers - people the government had described as criminals - Mr Abbott replied: "What we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook because that's what we've got to do and that's what we've successfully done and I just don't want to go into the details... The important thing is to stop the boats."

It was one of the oldest rhetorical tricks of all time, says Dr Dennis Glover, a professional speechwriter and a fellow of think-tank Per Capita.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Australia talks about stopping the boats but rarely mentions the plight of asylum seekers

"They are taking something that is a mistake and re-describing it as a success," says Dr Glover, who has previously worked for several Labor Party leaders.

If the allegations are true, paying money to people smugglers could have been a huge political blunder.

"It is implicit in their descriptions of evil people smugglers that you would not give them money... But by paying them it is the asylum seekers who become the real enemy while people smugglers can help us out by turning their boats back," he explains. "It is the ultimate PR triumph."

Others think Mr Abbott is testing the public's appetite for tougher action on asylum seekers.

The government will be wondering whether people are willing to let them stop the boats at any cost, says political scientist in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Dr Zareh Ghazarian.

By using phrases such as "by hook or by crook", Mr Abbott is reminding people how far he is willing to go to deliver on his election promise to stop the boats, says Dr Ghazarian, without committing himself on the payment issue.

"Asylum seekers and stopping the boats is arguably the government's one political achievement," he says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Australia is stopping migrant boats at sea and turning them back to Indonesia

"If they can't manage the asylum seeker issue and the boats start arriving again in the numbers we have seen in past years they will have lost credibility on this issue."

Social commentator and writer Jane Caro agrees.

"Stopping the boats is the only real success story for the government to hang its hat on," says Ms Caro, noting that it is a policy that remains popular with most Australians.

"I am speculating but Mr Abbott will be thinking that eventually [stopping the boats] will get tougher and he is not willing to remove anything from his bag of tricks," she says.

"Here is a prime minister who is reserving his options."

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