Turn back the boats: Abbott

OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott has used the latest rescue of more asylum seekers at sea to highlight the Coalition's preference for turning boats back.

Two Navy vessels rescued 162 passengers from a stricken vessel in rough seas south of Indonesia late on Wednesday.

The passengers, three of whom required medical treatment, were taken to Christmas Island on Thursday for processing.

Crew on board HMAS Leeuwin and HMAS Wollongong had to wait for hours before boarding the boat because of the treacherous conditions. Once on board they deemed the boat, which was well within Indonesian waters, was not seaworthy.

Mr Abbott said under a coalition government naval commanders would have the option of "taking those steps that are necessary to get that boat turned around".

"What used to happen under the Howard government was that naval personnel would board boats and they would ensure they were seaworthy," Mr Abbott said.

"They would remove fuel from the vessels so that the only option for those vessels was to return to Indonesia."
Mr Abbott said such decisions would be left to "naval commanders on the spot".

"Now, obviously I wasn't on the spot yesterday but those commanders on the spot under our policy would have had the option of turning that boat around if, in their judgment, it was safe to do so," he said.

"Under the current government's policy, all they can do is bring people to Australia. Well, that's absolutely the wrong message to be sending to the people smugglers and their customers."

However, on Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare expressed similar sentiments.

Mr Clare told reporters it was up to the commanders involved in the rescue to decide the safest course of action.

Early on Wednesday the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had instructed the boat to turn around after receiving its distress call.