Kevin Rudd's undeclared stop-the-boats policy turns on that very mechanism. He has outflanked Tony Abbott from the right co-opting the opposition's previously unutterable end-point of zero boats - without mouthing the words - but with a more comprehensive approach.
Abbott, who has steadfastly resisted overtures for more detail in the past, has suddenly come forward with a counter-move, proposing a quasi-militaristic response, tantamount to declaring war on those who, in some cases at least, are escaping real wars in fear for their lives.
It looks rushed because it was. Both plans have been. If Rudd's new policy works, few will be transferred to Manus Island. If it fails, it will be because it was overwhelmed by a more determined foe than even Abbott has turned out to be.
Abbott's fear appears to be the former and he is doing his best to stop confidence building in the government's capacity to deliver.
|Sending shock waves: Asylum seekers will now be transfered to PNG.|
This is understandable. Labor's last-minute transmogrification from 90-pound weakling to Charles Atlas-like muscle-man on boats policy could be a political game-changer. It is transparently designed to neutralise one of Abbott's most damaging criticisms of Labor - namely, that it is soft on border control. His relentless critique has eroded Labor's base from within in recent years, registering most strongly in its heartland seats in the country's outer suburbs and, most pointedly, in western Sydney.
It is these areas that voters' concerns over what should be separate issues of boats, immigration, overcrowding, foreigners and national security, have been confused and conflated, prompting Julia Gillard's oddly discordant crackdown on alleged 457 visa rorting earlier this year - a panicked response if ever there was one.
Rudd's ''PNG solution'' is much more clever than that and more honest. But it is premised on a calculated gamble - that if Australia can convince boat people it really has shut the door, they'll stop knocking on it. It's a gamble PNG's Peter O'Neill has signed up to as well, arguing his dirt-poor country gets additional investment in a hospital, on roads, police, and universities, plus more control on how Australian aid money is spent. Both leaders hope that in the end PNG will not be required to resettle substantial numbers of refugees, because they will stop coming once Australia as a final destination is off the table.
Harshness is the key. This policy has already rocketed up the dubious league table of ''cruel to be kind'' official responses to intractable social problems.
Its frankly unconscionable treatment of the unlucky few caught in the hinge moment of this jarring policy shift, is we are told, a necessary evil. They are the examples - their grim fate paraded loudly in order to shock others into not coming at all and therefore to end a pernicious trade costing lives at sea.
Questions about the complexities of the PNG transfer and therefore its durability are manifold. They range from its unknown cost and questionable legality to its tricky country-to-country logistics, given the woeful record of progress on Manus Island thus far.
For many, its blanket negation of individual circumstances is simply too hard a pill to swallow.
The conundrum for Rudd is this: for this to work, it has to be demonstrated to work quickly. The goal is shock and awe achieved by seeing the reality of the already wretched being transferred to the malarial hell-hole of Manus. Yet, with more than 900 arrivals in its first week, not counting a vessel that sunk with the loss of several lives, PNG's rudimentary facilities already face being swamped, straining the shamefully inadequate infrastructure on Manus and the socio-political will in Port Moresby to see it through.
Rudd must prove that his resolve is solid and then hope that his resolve and that of his PNG partners, is not tested for long.
That said, it was Rudd's only real move. While Abbott had long been vilified by the left for his boat turnarounds and other uncompromising rhetoric, Rudd's concession has given Abbott a moral win of sorts. But that is cold comfort.
For Labor, everything now turns on what happens from here to the election, expected to be called for September 21.
If the rate of arrivals slows or even stops, Rudd will have succeeded in taking asylum seekers off the front pages, allowing his government to talk about its strengths in education, health, disabilities, and superannuation. If the boats keep coming, especially at the increased rate since the PNG plan was unveiled, it will take little time indeed for the politics to overwhelm him.
Sydney Morning Herald