Less than two years ago, the Government was so freaked out by pictures of a few emaciated Sri Lankan boat people, adrift in the Indian Ocean and waving a sign saying "New Zealand", that it passed draconian laws to deter them and any who were planning to follow. Any group who managed to navigate around the vast Australian land mass and across the perilous Tasman to our shores would be immediately detained and sent off to one of Australia's hell-hole refugee island detention centres to rot.
But now the Key government is faced with a real and immediate "refugee" problem, they have little idea what to do about it. Our Australian mates passed legislation late last year to deport any New Zealander - no matter how lengthy their stay in Australia - with a jail record adding up to more than one year. Because it's retrospective, immigration officials are now busy going through jail records and knocking on doors at dawn to drag Kiwis off to detention centres as far away as Christmas Island.
Prime Minister John Key, who has failed to dissuade his Australian counterpart from this unbrotherly act, estimates 1000 New Zealanders could be caught up in this mass expulsion. Greg Barns, the president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, says the number could be much higher. He said 5000 New Zealanders had been jailed in Australia in the past 10 years and the majority could be facing deportation.
Many have spent most of their lives in Australia. They're now starting to end up dumped at Auckland Airport, separated from family and friends, and expected to survive as best they can.
So far, the government has left it to PARS, the Corrections Department-funded prisoner-aid society, to provide a reception committee. It can meet the deportee to offer help with long-term housing, arranging ID and signing up bank accounts, benefits and the like. However, it is not a housing provider. With luck, some will have short-term accommodation vouchers from the Australian authorities.
Recently, the Corrections Department gave PARS an additional $100,000 to help it cope with the influx. Around 40 were assisted from July to September.
But now comes the big stick. Responding to news that a New Zealand woman at the centre of one of Australia's most disturbing child abuse cases is about to be deported back here, Justice Minister Amy Adams is introducing legislation to, in effect, criminalise deportees who have already served their time under Australian law.
Ms Adams says as the Parole Board has no jurisdiction to impose parole on former Australian system prisoners, "we've had to create a framework that replicates it through a different mechanism". They will be subject to monitoring, have to report in, and "high risk" ex-prisoners will face stricter limitations.
Almost as an afterthought, there's talk of providing support for reintegration into the community.
No doubt there will be general public support for the move.
But from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, reintegration of these overseas Kiwis into society should have been the focus of this legislation, not the bending of the justice system to force people not convicted in our courts, to be subject to what will, in effect, be parole.
Without a concentrated effort, we face a mini crime wave. The recidivism rate in Australia as a whole runs at a round 40 per cent of released prisoners returning to jail within two years. In some states it's higher.
Given that the cost of keeping a prisoner locked up for a year is around the $100,000 given to PARS to cope with the arrival of the 1000-plus deportees, the economic argument for trying harder cries out.
Prison Fellowship New Zealand, which is headed by Phil McCarthy, who for 10 years until 2006 managed the prison system, campaigns for reintegration, saying "the economics of failure are ... punishingly real for all taxpayers and citizens". It claims the cost of the arrest, the court process and imprisonment averages $150,000 per offender.
Compare that to providing an effective support network system for each person. Prison Fellowship calculates the cost at starting around $10,000. As investments go, this sounds a no-brainer, when you compare it with the cost to the taxpayer of incarceration, along with the costs to the victims.