Syrian refugees stand at the entrance of their makeshift home on November 8, 2013 in Ankara. The refugees in Turkey, faced further misery due to increasing shortages of supplies, low temperatures, and snowfall. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN

Syrian refugees outside a makeshift home in Ankara. Photo: AFP

The start of a year is all about new beginnings, so here's my New Year's submission: with fresh new leadership and at least three years in opposition to get its act together, the Labor Party has to make a decisive break with its recent past, hit the policy reset button and restore some moral leadership over this country's treatment of asylum seekers. The onus on Labor is greater because there's no chance of a more enlightened policy from the Coalition, and Labor should know better.

Labor's sorry history on this issue began with its cave-in to the Howard government's post-9/11 stampede of moral panic over Tampa in 2001. Since then, Labor in opposition and government has tinkered with the policy - a little less harsh here, a lot more punitive there - but the fundamental problem remains: Labor (and Coalition) policy is deeply flawed, contrary to our international obligations under the United Nations refugee convention, and the practical treatment of asylum seekers, including vulnerable children, is completely at odds with basic standards of human decency. In essence, Labor has shared with the Coalition a policy approach that abuses and dehumanises asylum seekers to achieve the political and policy outcome of deterrence.

How did shared national policy get to this position? Asylum seeker policy is complex and both major political parties have followed a brutal logic in asserting the precedence of border protection over humane treatment of asylum seekers. The logic goes something like this: Australia - democratic, multicultural and free - stands as a beacon to forcibly displaced people in troubled nation states in the Middle East and elsewhere that have been racked by war, and worsening sectarian enmities and civil conflict (think Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Sudan, among others).

An open-border policy for Australia - the belief runs - would mean Australia potentially could end up as the haven of choice for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, with no means to resist. The brutal logic is this: if we make it harsh enough for asylum seekers, and remove any prospect of their successful resettlement in Australia, we can hold back the expected huge tide of unauthorised boat arrivals. That's the real underlying policy objective that unites the asylum seeker approaches of Labor and the Coalition.

There is a political overlay, as well, in which Labor has been too easily captive to the party machine men, who say it is electoral suicide, particularly in western Sydney, to adopt a more liberal approach to the treatment of asylum seekers once they have arrived. One rationale is the supposed status anxiety of other newly arrived migrants who feel threatened by asylum seekers taking their jobs and hard-won economic position.

Another is the supposed envy of working people who resent the idea of government bestowing benefits on asylum seekers - benefits not available to them. Or they say the asylum seekers are queue jumpers taking the place of others waiting for family reunion visas or the like. More recently, the new humanitarian rationale has been that drownings at sea are tragic and unacceptable, and asylum seekers need to be dissuaded from attempting hazardous voyages in unseaworthy boats. That is certainly true, but insufficient as a broader policy defence.

There are no easy political solutions to this matter, but there are sound principles rather than magic bullets to draw on. Importantly, we have to ask the right question, which is actually not ''how do we stop the boats?'', nor ''how do we destroy the business model of people smugglers?'', but ''how do we give effect to Australia's moral and international legal obligations and responsibilities to provide safety and protection to asylum seekers?''

The refugee issue is a global one, and there have to be new attempts to forge international approaches and agreements on the acute challenges we all face. Leaving aside ''internally displaced persons'', who have not crossed international borders seeking asylum and are unlikely to do so, the UNHCR estimates there are almost 16 million refugees and about a million asylum seekers worldwide. Those numbers have grown because of increasing levels of conflict and persecution.

Clearly, this country has to do more in accepting our share of refugees. In the past two decades, Australia has received only 3 per cent of asylum seekers worldwide; the overwhelming ''burden'' on receiving nations falls unequally on neighbouring, developing countries. Australia is ranked - by GDP per capita, as a surrogate for capacity to accommodate refugees - only 18th of 44 countries receiving asylum applications. That implies Australia should increase its share of refugees, which had been set at 13,000 for many years. It was raised under Labor to 20,000 in 2012, but the Abbott government is reducing it again to 13,750. It is too low and should be substantially increased.

Finally, there has to be a rebalancing of the deterrence/treatment equation. While managing asylum seeker arrivals, we have to ensure asylum seekers are humanely treated, their refugee claims are fairly assessed and that, if accepted, refugees have a realistic prospect of resettlement within a reasonable period. If that means the deterrence value of the policy is put at risk, so be it - because the brutal logic of deterrence has seen our asylum seeker policy degenerate to a morally corrosive regime of ever more barbaric treatment of vulnerable people who have sought our help.

We Australians are better than that.

Mike Richards is a management consultant, a former associate editor of The Age and former chief of staff to Labor leaders at the state and federal level.