Australian spies have reportedly been systematically paying people smugglers if they agree to turn back asylum seeker boats, according to new reports.

Both Labor and the Coalition governments are said to have approved the covert payments while in government but the Labor party made them on land in Indonesia to prevent boats leaving for Australia, according to new Australian press reports on Thursday.

Unlike the recent scandal involving 65 asylum seekers last month, the prior payments were made discreetly and only once the boats had returned to Indonesia. Spies then met the traffickers there and paid them for returning home.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard, playing word games, insists her government did not make payments to people smugglers at sea. Just what the difference is remains to be seen.

‘We didn’t have the same policy about turning boats around,’ Ms Gillard told the BBC, in a statement that could only be described as political hair splitting.

‘We didn’t operate the same policy that is under discussion.’

Ms Gillard told a BBC TV show that her government ‘absolutely’ engaged activities to disrupt people smuggling, but that she never authorized payments to people smugglers to sail back home, going back to a small difference in an otherwise objectionable policy that was, like that current Prime Minister Tony Abbott, not disclosed to the public or courts.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said of the latest revelations:

‘If there’s payments to be made to disrupt people smuggling syndicates that might also be something that you might imagine … also takes place,’ he told ABC radio on Thursday.

Mr Dreyfus said that the allegations of payments on open water “crosses the line” and may well be a crime under Australian law, if not Indonesian law.

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said that the latest allegations of bribery on open water don’t “stack up” with either domestic or international law.

‘Lets be honest, they’ve paid people to turn around, that’s bribery, that’s trafficking,’ she said.

Prime Minister Abbott plays fast and loose with the law, a stance that led to the downfall of his previous government. He was re-elected to power after a hard-fought campaign, yet the new bribery scandal could lead to yet another election if the activities, which he was clearly party to, are found to be illegal.

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