Australia's PM-elect faces early asylum-seeker test

SYDNEY - Australia's Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott faced an early test Monday over the divisive issue of asylum-seekers, with the first people-smuggling boats arriving on his watch and diplomatic pressure from Papua New Guinea.

Abbott, elected as Australia's next leader on Saturday, put a pledge to "Stop the Boats" at the centre of his campaign, vowing a crackdown on asylum-seekers arriving by sea.

In an early test of his promises, the first boat on his watch, carrying 88 passengers, was intercepted off Australia's coast overnight and taken to the remote Christmas Island processing centre.

A second vessel carrying 57 passengers, including two foreign journalists reportedly working for the US media, was escorted to Christmas Island later Monday after being intercepted by the navy.

The asylum-seekers' fate under the new government was unclear.

Abbott said he expected people-smugglers to test the new government and warned it was now a "very different situation" in Australia.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they attempt to test the new government's resolve but they will certainly find our determination more than equal to theirs," he told commercial radio.

"One of the things that will happen very swiftly is that people who come here illegally by boat - even those who might ultimately be found to be refugees - will not get permanent residency of our country."

Abbott has vowed to turn back asylum-seeker boats to Indonesia where most of them originate, in a military-led push called "Operation Sovereign Borders".

Any arrivals - including those already in Australia - are to be put on temporary three-year visas and a welfare-for-work programme without any appeal, family reunion or permanent residency rights or access to legal help.

He has also vowed to send Australian police to Indonesia and pay locals to become informants on people-smuggling activities, as well as a scheme to buy up rickety fishing vessels to keep them from trafficking syndicates, dismissed as "crazy" both in Australia and in the Asian nation.

The boat arrival came as Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill urged Abbott to stand by the previous Kevin Rudd Labor government's agreement that it take asylum-seekers arriving by boat in exchange for a boost in foreign aid.

"The resettlement programme and the infrastructure development programme associated with this - negotiated and agreed to with the Rudd government - was done with the Australian government, not a political party or individual," O'Neill told The National newspaper.

"I would expect the incoming government to respect it."

Abbott announced a A$4.5 billion (S$5.37 billion) cut to Australia's foreign aid budget were he to win office, casting some doubt over the PNG deal inked by Rudd in a bid to deter refugees from taking people-smuggling boats to Australia.

Centre-left Labor claimed that the punitive arrangement was working during the election campaign, with the number of arrivals more than halving in the first month of operation from 4,236 in July to 1,585 in August.