The task facing Kevin Rudd over asylum seekers is not an easy one. Yet Rudd Labor has demonstrated its ability to run a consistent political line. The Liberal Party, under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, has had much more difficulty in presenting a coherent case.

In part, this is because the Coalition is in opposition; in part, it is a result of such experienced political warriors as John Howard, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer no longer being in Parliament.

During Kerry O’Brien’s soft interview with Rudd on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report last Thursday the Prime Minister got across the line that Australia’s policy on border protection involves a tough, hardline approach to people smuggling but a fair and humane approach when it comes to the processing of asylum seekers.

Yet Rudd is doing what he said Labor would do on the eve of the 2007 election that is, turn back the boats. As a result both asylum seekers, and the people smugglers who carry them, will become part of what is being called the Indonesian solution.

Labor’s turn-back-the-boats policy honours its election promise and is consistent with the Government’s commitment to border protection. Here, Labor is quick to contrast its own approach with that of John Howard towards children. Over the past couple of weeks Rudd, with Labor ministers and backbenchers, and even pro-Labor spin-doctors like Tim Gartrell and Bruce Hawker, have successfully identified the Howard government with the incarceration of children behind fences in mandatory detention. Few Liberals or Nationals ever challenge this assertion.

The fact is that mandatory detention was introduced during Paul Keating’s prime ministership, in 1991 , as is documented in James Jupp’s book From White Australia to Woomera. Moreover, in 1994 the midpoint of the Keating Government about 350 children were in detention. It was Howard who abandoned the policy of detaining children with their families in response to considerable criticism from Coalition supporters and opponents alike.

Historically, Labor has taken a hardline approach on unauthorised boat arrivals. In 1975, during what turned out to be his final year in office, Gough Whitlam went out of his way to stop South Vietnamese anti-communists from settling in Australia. This was despite their having a genuine fear of persecution from the Vietnamese communist regime that came to power that year.

In 1977, speaking as ALP president, Bob Hawke campaigned against the arrival of Vietnamese boat people in Darwin. He declared: Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population. Howard quoted Hawke’s statement in Parliament in August 1984. Howard’s 2001 claim that we will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they will come effectively channelled Hawke’s position of a quarter of a century earlier.

Many Liberals have scant knowledge of, or interest in, contemporary history. So it’s not surprising when they are outflanked by Rudd Labor and presented as heartless types who, alone, would maintain a policy of mandatory detention while children suffered and adults harmed themselves. The truth is that all recent Australian governments have struggled with the problem of how to handle unauthorised arrivals particularly visible ones by sea. Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government did best. Even so, most Indochinese refugees who arrived at the time were taken in an orderly fashion from camps in Malaysia and, later, from Vietnam itself.

The politics of unauthorised arrivals is invariably difficult. The opponents of such entrants include many recently arrived migrants who came as part of the migrant intake, including the official refugee stream (of about 13,000 a year).

Unauthorised arrivals, whether by sea or air, tend to be both personally courageous and entrepreneurial. Consequently, they invariably make first-class citizens when given the chance to become Australians. Often unauthorised arrivals, who successfully claim asylum status, adapt better than those who come under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees-authorised annual refugee intake. However, both Labor and Coalition know unauthorised immigration is politically unpopular.

The best way for Australia to stop the odious practice of people smuggling and prevent an inevitable loss of life at sea is for Australia to put up a large red stop sign out the front. This can be accompanied by a small green go sign out the back. In other words, Australia should be sympathetic to boat people who claim persecution and pass security checks. But we should proclaim the need for the orderly arrival of refugees.

The unintended consequence of the Government’s criticism of the Opposition on this issue has been to send out a message that Australia is now softer on border protection. In reality, Rudd’s Indonesian solution may turn out to be tougher and crueller than Howard’s Pacific solution. Australia had some say about how asylum seekers were handled in Nauru and Manus Island. We will have less influence about what goes on in Indonesian detention centres.