The Prime Minister was uncharacteristically blunt about a boatload of asylum seekers expressing a wish to come to New Zealand. "They are not welcome here," he said. He believes he had to be that blunt. The boatpeople may have been no closer to these shores than any have been when they were intercepted by the Indonesian Navy last Saturday - and they were heading for Australia - but John Key says he has intelligence that New Zealand was their intended destination.

It is hard to believe; they and their craft did not look prepared for the swells and squalls of the ocean in these latitudes. But the words on their placards and the New Zealand flag they displayed were enough to bring this global problem closer to home than it has ever been.

The 85 Sri Lankans on the boat obviously believed that, if caught, their best prospect was to appeal to New Zealand. Clearly, the compassion Helen Clark displayed to the Tampa refugees, fully a decade ago now, has made a lasting impression on asylum seekers, or at least on those who take their money and put them to sea in small boats.

The New Zealand Government's attitude contrasted sharply with Australia's then, though it acknowledged the difficulty of Australia's position. New Zealand, being so much further from those seeking refuge, could afford to be sympathetic to them. That was not a view shared by the National Party at the time and it is sending a different message to desperate refugees now.

The Green Party is probably not alone in finding this message unpleasant. It seems unlikely that boatpeople would be mere "economic refugees" seeking a better living standard. There must be easier and safer ways to enter a country illegally than to put to sea in a small, overcrowded craft and hope to arrive unseen in the arid, deserted wastes of Australia.

These people set out in the knowledge there is a better-than-equal chance they will perish at sea or be intercepted and sent to an unknown detention centre to await an uncertain fate. They are throwing themselves to fortune like people who have nothing to lose. The poorest of people have something to lose, unless their life is threatened.

Sri Lanka has not long emerged from a long and bloody civil war. The Sinhalese Government would not allow media to witness the way it finally crushed the Tamil rebellion. Anyone afraid to remain in that country probably has cause. They deserve compassion even though no country can afford to welcome refugees who bypass the international channels for resettling them somewhere safe.

It would do them no favours to encourage false hope of a welcome here. The more who can be discouraged from taking their chances in the open ocean, the better for all concerned. New Zealand ought to support Australia's attitude to the hilt.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has continued the previous Government's policy of compulsory detention on territory legally outside Australian immigration law. But since Labour came to power the number of boats intercepted has steadily risen. The main detention centre on Christmas Island is overcrowded and has seen hunger strikes and violence.

New Zealand remains comfortably separated from the problem by southern seas. Asylum seekers arrive here by different means - 236 in the last year, of which 21 were allowed to stay. If ever a boatload arrived at once, it would test the capacity of detention facilities and the national compassion. But both would cope.

Boatpeople would not be welcome, as Mr Key rightly warns, but they would be accommodated while their case was considered and welcomed if their need proved genuine. He should say that too.