Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines

Is it OK to threaten to do a really bad thing if it means that you don't actually have to do it, even if you have to really be prepared to do it so as to make the threat work?

So John and Julia had themselves quite a nice time in Queenstown - and why wouldn't they, it being a beautiful place - chatting about this, that and the problem of refugees. That chat led them to agree that New Zealand would help Australia out by annually taking 150 of the asylum seekers wasting away in Australia's various detention centers, while Australia (apparently) left open the option for New Zealand to send over to its centers any such folks who might happen to arrive here.

John Key was at pains to portray this as New Zealand joining in a "regional solution" to the "boat people" problem. And we need such a regional solution, he maintained, because New Zealand faced a credible and ongoing threat of a boat-load of refugee-claimants arriving on these shores. So we can no longer sit passively on the sidelines and smugly judge how Australia is dealing (or, not dealing) with the issue. It's time for us to jump into the water with them (so to speak ...).  

Of course, not everyone is convinced. Over at Dimpost, Danyl thinks the whole thing is a bit preposterous:

If ‘boat people’ arrive in Australia they get sent to New Zealand, and if they arrive in New Zealand they get sent to Australian detention centers in PNG or Nauru, because we want to dissuade boat people from coming here, even though none ever have, and we’re doing that by accepting a hundred and fifty boat people a year.

Key looked like an imbecile on the news last night trying to justify all of this, with a subsequent graphic showing the route from Indonesia to New Zealand and the ten-thousand odd kilometer detour required to avoid Australia, and he looked like he knew it.

I guess that would be true if all "boat people" were the same. But they aren't. The 150 that NZ is agreeing to take will be folks whose claim to refugee status have been investigated and confirmed as genuine. That's why they'll come in under our 750-a-year quota, effectively displacing some poor 150 qualifying souls in refugee camps elsewhere in the world. Which may seem to be a bit "unfair" ... but I'm not sure there's really any good metric to decide who is more deserving of our help: the people who "follow the rules" by staying in camps in the countries they first flee to in the hope we'll come to get them; or the the people who risk death by setting sail in rusting old junkers in the hope they'll get themselves to a better place.

On the other hand, the "boat people" that we'll potentially be sending over to the Aussie's detention centers will be folks heading for, or washing up (possibly literally) on our shores with no certainty as to who they are or where they are from. They may well be "genuine" refugees (as such people are defined under international law). Or they may just be desperately poor people who are hoping for a better life in a country with far, far better living standards than theirs (in which case they are out of luck, because that's not a good enough reason under international law to get to stay here). Or they may even be nasty criminal, or even terrorist, folks with nefarious intentions.

That uncertainty as to exactly who is aboard any boat that might make its way to our shoreline is why the issue is such a potentially ticking political bomb. I've always thought that, for all New Zealand's tut-tutting about Australia's "racist" response to the arrival of what is in reality a comparatively small number of boat-bourne refugee-claimants, our response actually wouldn't have been all that much different were the shoe on the other foot. Borders may be simply lines drawn on a map, but they are powerful definers of "us" and "them". And the fear of the "other" or the "outsider" is a potent force in any domestic politics.

So if there is even a hint that New Zealand might become the recipient of a largish vessel full of exotic unknowns, you bet that the Government is going to worry. Hence its announcement last year that it wanted to create a new legislative regime to deal with the mass arrival of refugee-claimants - a proposal that seems to have run aground, given that at the time of the announcement "[Immigration Minister Nathan Guy] expected it to pass by the end of the year." And hence Key's musings that New Zealand could well send any arrivals who sail around Australia to get to New Zealand straight back into the camps that Australia has set up for those who come to its shores.

All of which may be a display of muscular, proactive policymaking. But there's another point to it. Because by announcing policies like these, the Government is carrying out the equivalent of putting a prominent burglar-alarm box on the outside of a house. It's not really there in case some burglar does come into your home. Rather, it's there to stop any burglar even trying to do so.

So, the theory goes, if Australia is seen as being too hostile for refugee-claimants, then that will make New Zealand a more tempting destination - even given the length and difficulties of the journey over here. But  if we make it clear that New Zealand is not a "soft touch" for refugee-claimants, then those tempted to make the journey in this direction will see it is not worth doing so. And as such, the policies you announce will take care of the problem by themselves - you'll never actually have to be nasty and draconian to anyone, because by theatening to do so you will convince any refugee-claimants thinking of setting off for these shores that they actually are better off staying in Indonesia or wherever and waiting to see if their lucky number comes up.

But here's the problem with "deterrence" in the current context. You are dealing with people whose conditions of existence are so miserable that, for them, the better bet is to pay a sizeable amount of cash to some stranger in the hope they put you aboard a somewhat seaworthy boat to cross the open ocean for days in order to reach a completely foreign place and an uncertain welcome. Given that degree of desperation, you need to counter it with a pretty bleak future.

That is why Australia has found that the measures it has had to adopt to effectively stop the (relatively small) flow of boat-bourne refugees to its shores are so draconian as to cause Amnesty International to label them "a human rights catastrophe with no end in sight", and led the UN Human Rights Commissioner to say that they "cast a shadow over Australia's human rights record". In short, the only way to stop "boat people" wanting to come to you appears to be the promise of a reception similar to that regimes like China or Cuba give to bloggers who decide to have a crack at the ruling party.

Now, of course, John Key can't say out loud that this is the logic at work. For one thing, there's a bunch of international conventions and other measures that New Zealand has signed up to that require us to treat refugees in a humane fashion. And John Key isn't about to blithely announce out loud that New Zealand is going to ignore these international obligations in pursuit of domestic political benefits - not at the same time as, for instance, we're busy challenging the Japanese for ignoring international law in how they harvest whales.

For another, absent the actual sight of a big ship full of brown faces sitting off our coast, the electorate probably isn't ready for the Prime Minister to come out and say honestly that we're going to stop these people coming here by putting them into camps that are so harsh they will make their former lives as stateless individuals fleeing from persecution and/or poverty at home look like complete luxury.  Which is why he soft-soaped questions about criticisms of Australia's detention centers by saying:

I haven't inspected the camps obviously but I accept the prime minister at her word. ... Our expectation is that the camps would be at the world standard we would expect from a developed economy like Australia.

Because, of course you can trust the Australian Prime Minister to be completely open and honest about the conditions in these places, and there is no reason at all why a country as rich as Australia would want to make them particularly harsh ... apart, of course, from the deterrent effect ... which is the entire point of their existence.

So that's the tiger we're grasping by the tail. It is, I guess, the same logic as applied throughout the cold war. The threat of the morally reprehensible action of visiting nuclear devestation on your opponent's cities was considered strong enough to stop you ever having to do so ... unless, of course, you one day did. In which case, you had to be prepared to do it, otherwise the threat wouldn't work.

Now - remind me. How did we as a country feel about making such threats back in the day?