TONY Abbott says he will turn asylum-seeker boats back out to sea if the Coalition wins the next election, accusing Kevin Rudd of lacking the “steel” to fulfil his promise to do the same. As authorities intercepted another refugee boat – the 59th this year – the Opposition Leader said asylum-seekers must know what a risky business it was coming to Australia by boat.

Mr Abbott attacked the Prime Minister over his lack of “steel” in handling the issue, The Australian reports. “If the circumstances permit it, you’ve got to be prepared to turn boats around,” Mr Abbott told The Australian yesterday. “John Howard was fiercely criticised for this. Nevertheless, Kevin Rudd said he would be more than tough enough to turn boats around were he prime minister, but he singularly failed to show any steel whatsoever since becoming our leader.”

The Opposition Leader’s comments were accompanied by a fresh broadside against the Rudd Government’s proposed emissions trading system. Mr Abbott challenged Mr Rudd to release Treasury modelling on who would be worse off under the scheme. Given that this is dribbling out piecemeal, I think it’s high time that Mr Rudd came clean with the Australian people,” Mr Abbott said.

The remarks prompted a government counter-attack, with Acting Climate Change Minister Peter Garrett challenging Mr Abbott to provide evidence for his claim the ETS would cost the average household an extra $1100 a year.

Mr Abbott’s comments on boats echo a promise made by Mr Rudd in the dying days of the 2007 election campaign. “You’d turn them back,” Mr Rudd said of approaching asylum boats. In the interview, given to The Australian, Mr Rudd acknowledged such an approach was contentious, but emphasised the importance of deterrence. “Deterrence is effective through the detention system but also your preparedness to take appropriate action as the vessels approach Australian waters on the high seas,” the then opposition leader said.

Mr Abbott acknowledged the electoral potency of the asylum-seeker issue, saying the spike in boat arrivals had registered in the electorate. Perhaps in a measure of how the debate had evolved since the Tampa crisis of 2001, Mr Abbott indicated the refugee issue was unlikely to dominate next year’s election campaign. “I think it’s an important issue,” the Liberal leader said. “I’m not saying it’s the most important issue, I’m not saying it’s necessarily a decisive issue. “But I think it has been a significant issue in terms of illustrating the comparative weakness of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.”

When asked if he was prepared to turn boats back to sea, Mr Abbott replied: “I think you’ve got to be prepared to turn boats around, as Kevin Rudd said he would be.”

Mr Abbott’s comments came as 16 Tamil asylum-seekers rescued by the Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking touched down in Australia. A total of 18 have flown to Australia, while the remainder have been taken to a UN transit facility in Romania where they will be vetted by Canadian and American immigration teams.

The Australian understands Canberra will admit more of the 23 Tamils still in detention, although it is not clear how many. The Tamils have been resettled under a special deal underwritten by the Rudd government to find them homes in the West within four to 12 weeks, in exchange for ending their month-long stand-off aboard the Oceanic Viking with Australian authorities.

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