Wait before you celebrate our new good look on the world stage with our humanitarian offer to take 150 of Australia's refugees. Because you have to ask this first. For four years, what has New Zealand said about Australia literally selling human beings around our region, to lock them way, indefinitely, in poorer nations who need the cash?

How have we reacted seeing our closest cousins, ironically, becoming the human traffickers they so abhor, flashing political concessions to a host of countries in the Pacific rim, on-selling their human rights obligations, creating a new regional contagion? What has New Zealand said up until now? Not. One. Word.

Until our new Prime Minister spoke out recently and renewed the problematic 2013 Queenstown deal, we have let Australia get away with murder.

So, when did our silence become complicity? In the past, Australia has approached many countries to warehouse Australia's asylum seekers, the Solomon Islands, Nuie, the Philippines, all unsuccessfully-before clinching cash offers with Manus, Nauru and Cambodia.

Advertisement

But surely, New Zealand would have been above the quiet political enticements Australia must have offered in 2013 for us to take 150 of Australia's refugees every year going forward (not UNHCR refugees, as we normally take) - right? Not likely.

At the time, Julia Gillard magnanimously offered any of New Zealand's future boat arrivals places at Nauru and Manus Island prisons too. Herald political editor Audrey Young noticed Australia finally promised to chase up $600 million in expat Kiwi student loans for us, an issue both parties had been stuck on for years. John Key applauded the "intelligence sharing we were to receive and called this a "good deal" for New Zealand.

Asylum seekers sit on the ground as they refuse to leave the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea.
Asylum seekers sit on the ground as they refuse to leave the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea.

We may never know just what was horse traded four years ago, but there it was, if you read between the lines -150 lives bought and paid for - human pawns bartered for political capital.

So before you champion our seemingly humane offer of taking 150 of Australia's refugees every year going forward, take a step back and understand the context. One of the most powerful players in our region has been able to sell human lives because it has the political clout to do it without our complaint - until now.

So where do we go from here? Jacinda Ardern has her work cut out. She needs to quietly, urgently renegotiate this 2013 deal first. Do it in a way that can provide Australia with enough face-saving that they accept it, yet still appear staunch.

If they are afraid of refugees coming in "the back door", compromise and close it - for some negotiated period, for now. Today, with computerised interdiction of airline passenger manifests, Australia would never allow these people to board an Australia-bound plane anyway.

Remember too, it is the Australians who are refusing to take up our 2013 offer. This deal wasn't done under Ardern's watch, nor Turnbull's, so they can approach it with fresh eyes. Attach new strings. We can and should help empty these out-sourced prisons urgently, but add a proviso; we can take 150 or more going forward - but only until the camps are emptied for good.

Indeed, the number of 150 is somewhat arbitrary. We have 196-bed capacity at Mangere Resettlement Centre. If we double-bunk folks just for this emergency, we can take 250 or more, in several six-week rotations. Equally important, additional emergency funding needs to be given to the long underfunded refugee sector, to care for what will be acute mental trauma.

Continue to work hard behind the scenes to make sure Australia doesn't peddle this policy further in our region too. Offering to empty these camps has to go hand-in-hand with public condemnation of this policy spreading further in our own back yard. With a reputation as a fair broker on refugee issues, New Zealand is in a perfect position to provide the regional moral leadership that reflects our humanitarian values.

Will this offer fly? Every successive Australian PM since Gillard has turned this deal down, fearing the political optics. But if Ardern somehow manages to get our "best friends" across the line, it will be a personal and nation-wide legacy of which we can be proud.

I can't think of a more profound beginning to a new leader's tenure. New Zealand can show the world, this is what compassion looks like, this is how you lead by example.

• Tracey Barnett is a columnist, author and founder of the refugee issues initiative, WagePeaceNZ.