In November 2009, the current Australian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull, was leader of the opposition.

In public, he and his colleagues routinely berated the refugee policy of the Rudd Labor Government, claiming it was luring asylum seekers into dangerous ocean voyages in the course of which many perished.

But behind the scenes, a different set of calculations was at play. On November 13 that year, the US Embassy in Canberra sent a cable to Washington headed "Australia searches for asylum seeker solution", and in a section headed "Opposition smells blood", it wrote, "A key Liberal Party strategist told us the issue was "fantastic" and "the more boats that come the better"'.

This highlights, as starkly as one could wish, the central feature of current Australian asylum-seeker policy: that it is driven above all else by Australian domestic politics.


Australia's offshore warehousing of asylum seekers who approach Australia by boat is not driven by concern about border controls, or about people smuggling, or about loss of life at sea.

Rather, in the context of an electoral system based on compulsory, preferential voting in single-member constituencies, it has become the device by which the ruling Liberal-National coalition seeks to attract second-preference votes from electors who give their first preferences to Pauline Hanson's racist One Nation party.

With a state election looming in the state of Queensland, and with the coalition Government trailing the Labor opposition by a massive ten percentage points in national opinion polling, it is no surprise the obsessions of the Hansonites are weighing prominently in the calculations of ministers in the Turnbull Government.

This is the context in which one should understand the Australian government's indifference to the humanitarian crisis developing amongst the refugees who have been shipped by Australia to Papua New Guinea. It also explains Australia's dismissal of New Zealand's generous offer to resettle some of the refugees.

Many in Australia have been bemused by Australia's chilly response to New Zealand's offer. New Zealand, like Papua New Guinea, is a sovereign state, not an Australian colony.

Indeed, emphasising the sovereign status of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, Australia has long sought to avoid scrutiny of what former New Zealand Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne in November 2015 called the 'modern concentration camp approach Australia has taken'.

Yet the implication of this sovereignty is that New Zealand, if it so chooses, is fully entitled to deal directly with Papua New Guinea on issues of refugee resettlement, and it is none of Australia's business what form any agreement between Wellington and Port Moresby might take.

Two policy claims have been advanced by Australia to try to persuade New Zealand to sit on its hands. Both are spurious. The first is that priority should be given to an Obama-era agreement with the United States to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus.


This may ultimately help some refugees, but the pace of processing is glacial, the agreement could still unravel at the whim of Donald Trump, and in any case, Prime Minister Turnbull cynically remarked to Trump, in a phone conversation subsequently leaked to the Washington Post, that the agreement 'does not require you to take any'.

The second, allegedly backed by 'intelligence', is that New Zealand is at risk of being deluged by a flotilla of people smugglers' boats.

This is best seen as evidence of how obsessive some elements of Australia's immigration bureaucracy have become, but it does suggest a possible Christmas present from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to Malcolm Turnbull - a map of the world showing just how far New Zealand is from any conceivable ports of departure for smugglers' vessels.

In truth, Malcolm Turnbull is not the main problem. With a wafer-thin parliamentary majority and detested by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his clutch of supporters, Turnbull has found himself beholden to his ambitious, ice-cold and ultra-conservative immigration minister, Peter Dutton.

It is this, rather than any real policy concern, that has prompted Turnbull to turn New Zealand's resettlement offer aside.

But although he would never admit it, in his heart of hearts he might well welcome action from Wellington to break the impasse, and since his Government seems in any case headed for oblivion, New Zealand had little to fear by way of an Australian backlash.

William Maley is professor of diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific college of diplomacy at the Australian National University