It was probably a coincidence that the Government decided to get tough on boat people the same day that its ally John Banks was facing awkward questions of an "anonymous" campaign contribution. As diversions go, the spectre of seaborne invasion by illegal immigrants would be a little too obvious. More likely, the decision is the result of normal policy-making that began in response to the incident last month when 10 Chinese nationals made landfall in Darwin and said their intended destination was New Zealand.

How seriously need the country prepare for this threat? No boatload of desperate people has ever washed up on our shores and it would be a remarkable feat of seamanship if one did. It is not just the distance involved but the southern ocean swells that would greet any light craft venturing down the east coast of Australia. The courage of "people smugglers" probably stops at the tropics.

But if it ever happened, the Government has decided how it would deal with it. Immigration control will be equipped with power to detain 11 people or more under a group warrant rather than having to deal with each of them individually. They would be taken to a secure place, most likely Devonport Naval Base, for their refugee applications to be considered.

If they were accepted, it would not be on the same terms as those who had waited to be resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The boat group would not be granted residency until their refugee status was reviewed after three years, and only a spouse and children would be allowed to join them here, not the extended family that can come in under the UNHCR programme.


Immigration Minister Nathan Guy says these arrangements are in line with Australia's, as though that is an unalloyed virtue. New Zealand is in quite a different predicament from its near neighbour. New Zealand does not offer a vast empty continent with its northern coast a few days' drift from Indonesia. Its economy is not thriving on mineral extraction, its population has not been growing at Australia's rate over the past few decades and its net migration flows have fluctuated with its economic performance.

New Zealand, in short, can afford to be a good deal more relaxed than Australia about uncontrolled immigration.

Obviously it needs to know who is entering and have the ability to detain them to check that they are not criminal escapees or incapable of supporting themselves. But that done, it should not trouble itself too much about those who jump the queue by any means they can.

These people are likely to be more than normally energetic, resourceful and determined to improve their lives. They are the sort of people every strong economy needs, particularly one with a small population and low rates of growth. Let Australia lock these people up in detention centres if it must for the sake of its border security, but we are in a different position.

We can afford to treat them gently if they have made it here on their own efforts and expense, whether they are genuine asylum seekers or the more common "economic refugees". The reception centre at Mangere appears to do a good job quietly settling the few refugees the Government accepts under the UN programme. An annual quota of 750 seems a drop in the ocean and we have not reached it in recent years. Undoubtedly we could take more.

Illegal immigration is a favourite target everywhere for politicians who want to sound tough, yet some of the highest living standards today are to be found in countries with permeable borders and diverse immigrant communities. If some brave boat people ever make it this far, we should give them some credit and wish them well.