It remains hard to believe that boatloads of unauthorised migrants would set out from southern or southeast Asia bound for New Zealand. It is even harder to believe they would reach our shores in the flimsy overcrowded craft that try to cross the tropical sea to the coasts of Australia. But once again somebody in Australia, presumably in a position to know, would have us believe this country is in people smugglers' sights.

The newspaper The Australian reported yesterday that a naval patrol intercepted a boat containing 29 Sri Lankans last month, who said they were bound for New Zealand, and that Sri Lankan authorities disrupted two people-smuggling ventures in their waters late last year in which New Zealand was the intended destination. The newspaper's unnamed informant had noticed an increase in "chatter" about New Zealand after our new Prime Minister renewed this country's offer to take 150 detainees from Manus Island.

Somebody across the Tasman it seems has been stung very deeply by that offer and Jacinda Ardern's public criticism of Australia's offshore detention policy, or it might just be that this country is the meat in the sandwich of Australian internal politics. The governing Liberal Party is using New Zealand's offer to attack the Opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten, who supports a resettlement deal.

There seems no doubt majority opinion in Australia favours the policy of "turning back the boats", which their previous Labor Government also adopted when it faced a resurgence of seaborne illegal immigration after coming to power. Our new Prime Minister has probably done her fraternal party in Australia no favours.


But while the threat to New Zealand appears improbable, the Government would be wise to consider what it would do if it were to receive a call from Canberra advising that its Navy had intercepted a boatload of people on a course set for New Zealand. What would our Government wish to be done with them? Should they be brought here or taken to one of Australia's detention centres?

The question is hypothetical because Australia does not want New Zealand to be a destination for boat people, who could then take advantage of New Zealanders' access to Australia, and would not give us the option. But if our Government believes Australia's policies to be "unacceptable", as the Prime Minister said, this is her opportunity to declare a different policy.

If Australian intelligence is telling our Government it is intercepting boatloads of people intent upon coming here, our Government could argue they should be treated in accordance with its policy. So what would its policy be?

In 2012, the previous Government took Australian intelligence sufficiently seriously to write new law for dealing with refugees who arrived as a group rather than individually as most do. They were to be immediately detained, probably at the Devonport Naval Base, and their applications would be treated less favourably than those applying through the UNHCR process to ensure this country was not seen as a "soft target".

Is this the new Government's intention too? Now would be a good time to say so.