There is a widespread impression that the policy of stopping the boats is a work complete, a finished product. That the 2000 or so asylum seekers left stranded in offshore detention, caught by the permanent closure of the waterways for people without visas, are to remain an object lesson forever, their suffering a warning to others.
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Protesters climb Arts Centre spire
Hanging a banner protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, two young women have climbed the Arts Centre spire. Courtesy ABC News 24
And that the voices raised in protest are forlornly futile.
None of these assumptions is correct.
The policy of stopping the boats is a project half finished.
The arrival of new boats has indeed been stopped. And the methods used to stop them are non-negotiable for Malcolm Turnbull. He will do nothing that might risk a reopening of the traffic.
For instance, he was asked on Friday at an appearance with New Zealand's John Key whether he would accept the Kiwi's offer to take 150 of the people locked up on Manus Island and Nauru.
He explained why Australia's answer remains "thanks but no thanks":
"We are utterly committed to ensuring that we give no encouragement, no marketing opportunities to the people smugglers."
How would it be a marketing opportunity if NZ were to take some? Because the people smugglers could sell it as a new product, Turnbull imagines, along these lines – "come on my boat to Australia, yes you'll be taken to a detention camp but look, you'll eventually go to live in lovely NZ.
"And if you don't like it there, it's easy to move from NZ to Australia any time." He will take no chances of creating a possible "pull factor" for asylum seekers.
"The one thing we must not do is give an inch to the people smugglers," Turnbull continued, "because, believe me, we are not talking about theories here. The alternative approach has been tried by Labor and we know what the consequences are."
The daily fact of their imprisonment in Australia's name chafes and pricks the consciences of millions.
Support for immigration program rises
Turnbull reminded reporters of what happened the last time Australia relaxed its policy on boat arrivals under the Rudd government: "Over 150,000 unauthorised arrivals, over a thousand deaths at sea. It was a catastrophic failure of policy."
Labor, with the greatest reluctance, had to agree. It was Rudd who, eventually, declared that no one arriving by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. And it was Rudd who negotiated with PNG to set up the Manus Island camp.
That wasn't enough to stop the boats, and it was, famously, the Abbott government's promise that it would "stop the boats" by turning them back at sea, where necessary.
Labor last year formally accepted boat turnbacks as part of its policy. Turnbacks are now bipartisan national policy and non-negotiable.
Australia's coastline is vast at over 36,000 kilometres long, equivalent to about 90 per cent of the circumference of the earth. Comprehensively sealing it to boat arrivals is a considerable logistical feat.
This was also central to restoring public confidence that the borders are under sovereign control and that the immigration program is orderly. As boats have stopped, polled support for the current immigration program has risen, shown in surveys including the annual Scanlon Foundation reports on Australian social cohesion.
This is now an established pattern, recurring over decades, that reveals the underlying socio-political construct in Australia – if we think the borders are under control, we accept a high immigration intake. If boats are arriving in an uncontrolled way, we oppose it.
But that alone is not enough. The offshore detention camps are not a permanent solution.
They are inherently unreliable as physical realities. They are politically vulnerable, subject to the vagaries of political opinion in the host countries of Nauru and PNG. The Nauruan government specifically designates the Australian detention centre as "temporary".
Inherently unconscionable to a great many
Labor's Richard Marles, who engineered the party's decision last year to accept boat turnbacks, points out that 1000 or so asylum seekers is a big number in a tiny country, population 10,000:
"Nauru has never been a suitable place for the long-term settlement of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers. The idea of permanently resettling an extra 10 per cent on the existing population is plainly silly, and the need to resolve the fate of these asylum seekers and refugees is becoming critical, both for them and the Republic of Nauru."
And the camps are inherently unconscionable to a great many Australians as a permanent place of detention for people who risked their lives to get to Australia.
The daily fact of their imprisonment in Australia's name chafes and pricks the consciences of millions. A quarter of respondents to an Essential Media poll last November said the treatment of people in the offshore detention centres was "too harsh". That equates to over 3.5 million Australian voters.
Many of these are people who consider themselves Liberal voters, but they're uneasy over the suffering of asylum seekers. The party's internal research is showing that this is a problem, an issue that suppresses potential levels of support for Turnbull.
In the same poll, another 29 per cent of respondents said their treatment was "too soft". These people, however, are generally voting for the Coalition already. They will not abandon Turnbull over asylum seekers so long as the boats stay stopped.
Shaping perceptions of Australia
This is an issue that dogs Australia's image abroad and eats away at its reputation as a country that respects human rights. It is the biggest continuing source of international media coverage of Australia.
The moral dimension of the treatment of immigrants flared this week in the US election campaign when the Pope condemned would-be Republican candidate Donald Trump.
The celebrity demagogue's very first sally into the presidential campaign was to smear Mexicans as rapists and to promise to build a wall along the entire 3100 kilometre border, with Mexico somehow being required to pay for it.
This is not a plausible policy; the popularity of it with Americans, however, is a case study in how a frustrated people can turn to extremes if they think their borders are not under sovereign control.
Pope Francis told reporters: "Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian."
Australia has a big immigration program, one of the biggest in the world on a per capita basis. So it is a leading bridge-builder, on the Pope's definition. Yet this is lost in global media coverage, which highlights only the suffering of asylum seekers in offshore detention camps.
This is no surprise – the definition of news is what's going wrong in the world, not all that's well. But it is a reality that the persistence and prevalence of the coverage shapes international perception of Australia.
'This is like the boy who drowned on the beach'
The surge of public sympathy for the 237 asylum seekers who've been brought from Nauru to Brisbane for medical treatment has shown that many Australians remain keenly alive to the plight of asylum seekers.
The "let them stay" campaign has moved a lengthening list of churches to offer them sanctuary under the ancient custom. Even though it has no legally enforceable basis, this is a powerful moral statement.
The case of baby Asha has become a focal point. The government intends to return the one-year-old, being treated for burns, to Nauru once her medical care is complete. But the child's doctors are refusing to discharge her.
"This is like the boy who drowned on the beach in Turkey," Alan Kurdi, "because it personalises the issue," says Patrick Baume of the media monitoring firm iSentia. "It's pricked the conscience of a lot of people across the spectrum."
He says this helps explain the continuing prominence of the "let them stay campaign". It was the third most-reported story in the news this week, after the new Turnbull ministry and the tax debate but ahead of the Cardinal Pell story and coverage of the Grammys.
"Let them stay" has been running at high volumes in the news media and in social media for two weeks now, says Baume: "That's a fairly long time for any story these days. It's clearly got more legs than any other asylum seeker issue in recent times."
The other part of the explanation is that the campaign has been shrewdly promoted by activists on social media, he says. By contrast, it's a dead issue on talkback radio. iSentia reports "let them stay" had 8000 mentions on social media in two days this week but just 14 talkback calls.
The campaigning, officially ignored, is yet quietly noted, and the cumulative effect on Liberal voters is weighed.
'I want this settled'
On a human level, the plight of the asylum seekers weighs on ministers and senior officials too. No official or politician wants to see them remain indefinitely in detention centres. None enjoys having to confront the constant stream of problems, allegations of rape and abuse, harm and self-harm.
Turnbull himself, while immovable on the methods that have stopped the boats, wants movement on the resettlement of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. "I want this settled," he instructed a senior official soon after taking the prime ministership.
The Abbott government already was quietly seeking options for their resettlement to third countries. Turnbull has put new energy and focus into the quest, officials said.
Australian officials are discussing resettlement of asylum seekers from the offshore detention centres into third countries with half a dozen foreign governments now. Of those, discussions have progressed into negotiations with three.
With Malaysia and the Philippines, talks are focused on resettlement of asylum seekers. With Indonesia, the question is whether Jakarta will agree to take back people who boarded boats to Australia, who will never be permitted to settle in Australia, but who still have family or other connections in Indonesia.
Both major parties are determined that the boats must stay stopped. That is non-negotiable. But neither wants the asylum seekers now in offshore detention to remain in the camps forever. And the voices of Australia's troubled conscience are being heard.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.