It”s not often that a government loses control over key areas of domestic or international policy. Yet it happens occasionally. Whitlam Labor lost control of economy policy around the middle of 1974. Attempts were made to restore economic authority but it was too late to overturn the political damage.

By the end of last year, it was evident Labor had lost control of border protection. This led the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to appoint the expert panel on asylum seekers in June, comprising retired defence chief Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Professor Michael L”Estrange, which released its report yesterday.

On the eve of the 2007 election, the then-opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, declared that if Labor was elected it would tow asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia. Following Labor”s victory in November 2007, this was soon junked. Instead Rudd, supported by Gillard and other senior ministers, embraced a series of myths, including that asylum seekers were a product of “”push”” rather than “”pull”” factors – in other words, that persons seeking refuge arrived on Australian shores because they were desperate and not because Australia was a desirable destination.

By the end of the Coalition government, John Howard had embraced what can best be termed a “”two flags”” policy. There was a “”red flag”” out the front telling asylum seekers not to arrive by sea or air. This involved mandatory detention (introduced by Paul Keating”s Labor government) for those who made it to Australia. There was also offshore processing on Nauru or, for a time, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and there were temporary protection visas by which refugees were given temporary residence for themselves but not their families, pending resettlement back in their homelands when, and if, the persecution they feared abated.

That was the “”red flag””. The “”green flag”” was not waved in public. Yet, in his final term in office, Howard oversaw the virtual emptying of the mandatory detention centres. This was preceded by the release of children. (Mandatory detention of children was another initiative of the Keating government.)

At times between 2001 and 2007, the Coalition”s approach to asylum seekers was unduly harsh. But it worked. The real test is that what are now termed unauthorised arrivals almost ceased coming to Australia by boat. And few, if any, boats meant few if any drownings. But, in 2008, the immigration minister, Chris Evans, announced the dismantling of Howard”s approach to border protection.

Since then the boat arrivals – and the drownings – have increased exponentially. So far in 2012 alone, some 7500 asylum seekers have arrived by boat. This compares with 2059 arrivals during the entire seven-year period of Malcolm Fraser”s government between 1976 and 1982.

Yesterday the Houston report effectively announced a back-to-the-future approach. In his media conference, Houston acknowledged that “”onshore processing encourages people to jump into boats””. Moreover, his panel proposed the re-opening of offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Islands while declining to fully endorse Gillard”s Malaysia solution.

After the communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975, most refugees fled their homelands and found immediate refuge in such places as Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia. The overwhelming majority who were admitted to Australia arrived by air with identity papers and valid visas. Today the tendency is for people smugglers to advise their customers to destroy their identity papers before they arrive by boat without visas as part of a second movement from their temporary bases in Indonesia or Malaysia.

It is no surprise that a majority of Australian residents – native born, immigrant and refugee alike – do not approve of unauthorised arrivals. Many have family and friends who find it difficult to lawfully enter Australia under the skilled, family reunion or refugee intakes.

Writing in this issue of The Monthly, Dr Waleed Aly asks “”what exactly is the problem”” with asylum seekers arriving by boat. This is very much a Greens approach. Aly is a Monash University academic who also presents the ABC”s RN Drive program. As is not uncommon with ABC presenters, Aly criticises both Labor and the Coalition from the left. He dismisses the concept that the likes of Gillard and Tony Abbott might really want to stop asylum seekers from drowning. Moreover, he fails to appreciate that, in a democracy, elected politicians have to pay some heed to citizens.

The Houston report demonstrates just how difficult government is. It is unlikely that its recommendations, even if they are capable of rapid implementation, could work.

The problem is that, since 2008, Labor has been regarded as a soft touch by people smugglers. Once there is a perception that a government has failed on border protection, unauthorised arrivals are likely to continue. Until a new tough-minded administration comes to office and puts out a red flag.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute