Funeral fallout: 'we did go a little bit too far'

Did I say that? . . . Tony Abbott's comment over the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan causes controversy.
Did I say that? . . . Tony Abbott's comment over the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan causes controversy.
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Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has conceded the coalition went too far in criticising the government for paying for Christmas Island shipwreck survivors to attend family funerals.

Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison was blasted for saying it was unreasonable to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for flying 22 family members from Christmas Island to Sydney for Tuesday's funerals.

Mr Morrison today admitted the timing of his comments was "insensitive" but did not back down from their substance.

"I know probably more than anyone how strongly people feel about this issue, how angry they get about the costs that are involved," he told Macquarie Radio.

"I share that anger, and I want to see that changed, but there is a time and a place."

Mr Abbott - who earlier said he believed the government's decision was "unusual" - said Mr Morrison's contrition showed guts.

"I want to thank Scott for being man enough to accept that perhaps we did go a little bit too far yesterday," he said.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said chartering flights for the family members had cost about $300,000.

Asked if that was too costly, Mr Abbott said: "It's up to the government to justify what the government does."

As many as 50 people died when the asylum seeker vessel SIEV 221 crashed on rocks and broke apart off Christmas Island in December.

Eight of the dead were buried in two separate funeral services in Sydney on Tuesday.

The family members, including three children, were due to return to the Christmas Island Detention Centre on Wednesday.

Among them was nine-year-old Iranian Seena Akhlaqi Sheikhdost, who lost his parents and brother in the disaster.

Responding to criticism of the boy being sent back to detention, Mr Bowen said he would be released into the community "quite soon".

"I've said that I'll release the majority of children and families into the community by June, and I'm prioritising people who've been through trauma and torture, and he will be prioritised," he said.

Government frontbencher Craig Emerson kept up criticism of Mr Morrison's comments, labelling him a "hard right-winger".

"He is just dancing to the tune of One Nation, that's the truth of the matter."

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor, who is in charge of border protection, said he found Mr Morrison's original comments to be offensive.

"People want strong border protection, but they don't believe you should come out and attack a 10-year-old's right to grieve at the grave of his father," he said today.

"Mr Morrison showed a very distasteful approach to raising costs incurred for a father to grieve for his lost child, for a young child to grieve for his father.

The minister said he was not surprised the shadow treasurer Joe Hockey had expressed a different view.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard - in New Zealand for talks with her counterpart John Key - said footing the transport bill was the "right thing to do".

Ms Gillard confirmed she had raised with Mr Key her proposal for a regional asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor.

Mr Key said his country remained open to the proposal.

"New Zealand's willing to continue to engage in that dialogue. We see this as a regional issue," he said.