What’s the difference between a turn-back and a tow-back? A piece of rope, it would seem, which is slowly strangling the government’s promises on asylum seeker policy and cutting further into the diplomatic wound with Indonesia.

Remember, Prime Minister Tony Abbott created the definition in October last year:

“Can I just scotch this idea that the Coalition’s policy is or ever has been tow-backs. Our policy, which we’ve repeated ’till we’re blue in the face, is that we reserve the right to turn boats around where it’s safe to do so. There’s a world of difference between turning boats around in Australian waters and the Australian Navy towing them back to Indonesia. There’s just a world of difference.”

But that’s not happening, at least in one case reported overnight where an asylum seeker insists the boat he was on was intercepted north of Darwin and firmly tethered to a navy vessel while it was towed back to Indonesian waters and let loose.

Which sure sounds like a tow-back to us.

What the Abbott government is ordering our military to do — and telling us very little about — is not in the spirit of its policy, it’s putting the lives of asylum seekers at further risk and it’s angering an ally that keeps hearing one thing but seeing another. The furious determination to stop the boats is producing haphazard policy with serious diplomatic consequences.

That bit of rope is hanging the government on this issue.