Tony Abbott says if he were Prime Minister, the latest asylum-seeker boat rescued by the navy could have been towed back to Indonesia.
The Opposition Leader made the claim yesterday even though the boat was reported to be carrying up to 30 children and a man aboard had a suspected heart attack.
Some senior Opposition members have sought to hose down Mr Abbott's hardline tow-back policy, with frontbencher Christopher Pyne complaining there was "too much focus" on that element of the coalition's border protection plan.
But Mr Pyne also claimed asylum seekers were treating the navy like a car repair callout service, expecting Australian boats to rescue them when they were only a short distance from Indonesia.
Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas, said he did not know if people smugglers were telling their passengers to call Australia directly, but he did know that when his agency tried to contact boats in distress, "they hang up".
"Perhaps they know it's not a call from Australia," he said.
Mr Prakoso said asylum seekers in distress had recently begun using satellite phones rather than distress beacons, which would broadcast their location to Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.
Their phones were equipped with the numbers of Australian agencies and they refused to speak to Indonesians, he said.
Navy vessels transported 162 asylum seekers to Christmas Island yesterday after they had been plucked from a small boat about 90km south of Java.
The vessel continued south despite making a distress call and being asked repeatedly to turn back to Indonesia.
Mr Abbott complained that all the Government could do was bring boats to Australia - sending the wrong message to people smugglers and their customers.
"Under our policy, naval commanders on the spot would have the option of turning boats around if it was safe to do so," he said.
Mr Pyne said: "Asylum seekers using the navy as an NRMA (road breakdown service) to come to Australia is just another symptom of the Government's complete failure to protect our borders."
The Government and Opposition are deadlocked over asylum seekers, with the coalition refusing to back Prime Minister Julia Gillard's plan to send boat people to Malaysia.The Government suffered a blow this week after WA Liberal backbencher Mal Washer said Ms Gillard should back the coalition's plan to send asylum seekers to Nauru. Last week, he threatened to cross the floor to vote with the Government on the Malaysia plan.
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