Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Six days out from the federal election, Labor's third immigration minister in seven months announced that Kevin Rudd's radical new policy to stop the boats had, more or less, done just that. Tony Burke didn't use the words ''mission accomplished'', but he might just as well have.
''I have absolutely no doubt now that the policy is having the impact that we hoped," Burke told me before Rudd officially launched his re-election campaign. ''There will still be a few more operations that are able to get away, but the truth is the smugglers continue to want to run boats - and people are no longer wanting to get on them.''
The supporting evidence was strong, but hardly conclusive. After 4236 people arrived on 48 boats in July, fewer than 1600 people came to Christmas Island on 25 boats in August. That was after Rudd declared that future arrivals would not just be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing, but be resettled there permanently if they were found to be refugees.
So far this month, the numbers have more than halved again, and a new government has announced what it boasts is a much tougher policy to finish the job, complete with a rebadged immigration department (with border protection as part of its name); a new, military-led command structure; an information blackout; and the promise that arrivals will be flown to PNG or Nauru within 48 hours of being intercepted.
No policy, aside from scrapping the carbon tax, was more strongly flagged over the past four years, and none, including scrapping the carbon tax, was set out in more detail in policy documents during the campaign. But much was also left unsaid by the new Immigration Minister - the man some are now calling Secret Scott or Major Morrison.
''They didn't tell us that they weren't going to tell us,'' is how one insider describes the decision to restrict information on boat arrivals, on the pretext that the government will not be providing ''shipping news to people-smugglers''.
Clamps on the flow of information about arrivals, attempts to turn back boats and what is happening in offshore detention centres are not, however, the most worrying aspect of the extravagantly named Operation Sovereign Borders. The greater danger is that Australia will find itself in breach of its obligations under international law, with potentially dire consequences for those subjected to the policy, and offside with its largest near neighbour.
There is a distinct lack of clarity about precisely what fate awaits those who are not deterred - something underscored when the new Prime Minister was interviewed by 3AW's Neil Mitchell on Friday. Initially, he said: ''No one who comes to Australia illegally by boat and is found to be a refugee will get permanent residency. The best they'll get is a temporary protection visa.'' And moments later: ''Now, anyone who gets here illegally by boat is out of the country, to Nauru or Manus [Island] within 48 hours, and they're never coming back.'' Which statement is correct?
The most immediate challenge will be confronted early next week when Abbott makes his first overseas trip as PM and visits Jakarta to deal with what he insists will, in time, be regarded as ''but a passing irritant''.
Jakarta is certainly irritated, big time, by Coalition plans that include turning back boats and the illogical notion of buying ''decrepit and dangerously unsafe'' boats on the grounds that they could otherwise be sold to people smugglers.
The extraordinary release of the Indonesian account of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's conversation with his new Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, in New York this week highlighted the depth of Indonesian consternation about the policy, which also envisages sending those intercepted at sea to ''authorised transit points'' so they can be flown to Nauru or PNG without setting foot on Christmas Island.
Aside from opposing turn-backs and being mightily unimpressed by the idea of boat buy-backs, sources say Indonesia has no intention of making its ports available as transit points for those intercepted to be transferred from Australian naval vessels to planes after being deemed ''fit to fly'' to Nauru and Manus.
The ''48-hour tasked turnaround'' is also a potential source of anxiety for Nauru and PNG because of the risk that asylum seekers could be carrying infectious diseases. It is also a risk for the asylum seekers if they are traumatised by the events that forced them to flee their homelands ill, or not fully immunised.
Explaining how the policy will work, Morrison said this week: ''If people are fit to get on a boat, they'll be quickly deemed fit to fly, and issues relating to health and other matters will be progressed increasingly at the other end.'' If it were this simple, it is safe to assume the previous government, under assault from Morrison for not being tough enough, would have implemented a similar approach, yet Burke steadfastly maintained that it takes about two weeks to complete the necessary checks before sending people to island detention centres.
Then there are the questions around the adequacy of camps on PNG and Nauru, and the hurdles asylum seekers will face in putting their case for protection. The United Nations refugee agency's Rick Towle is just back from PNG and says: ''There are formidable challenges in providing effective protection for people transferred to Manus Island.''
On Nauru, there is less concern about the processing regime, but growing alarm that decisions have not been communicated to those who have been on the island for about 12 months - and apprehension about the plan to house thousands of people in tents in soaring temperatures with limited privacy, stretched resources for schooling and limited freedom of movement.
The UNHCR is due to visit both countries next month. Amnesty International is hoping to do the same later on, and is dismayed at the new policy directions. ''At worst they endanger the lives of asylum seekers, either through drownings because they are turning back boats, or by pressuring asylum seekers, many of them genuine refugees, to return to countries where they may be persecuted, or tortured or murdered,'' says Amnesty's Graeme McGregor. ''At best, they are discriminatory, and do nothing to address the bigger problem of asylum seekers in the Asia-Pacific region.''
Refugee lawyer David Manne agrees: ''This is playing the short game - one that harms the very people we have committed ourselves to protect - rather than look to medium and longer-term responses.'' Herein lies another concern of agencies such as the UNHCR - that Australia's example of unilateral action and a singular focus on deterrent will be followed by other countries, and consequently undermine global support for the institution of asylum.
One hope is that Indonesia's irritability prods Australia back in the direction of more co-operative action to reduce the risk of deaths at sea, along the lines of several of the recommendations of the expert panel set up by Julia Gillard. But there is little reason to believe Morrison will deviate from his hardline path.
Given the ''progress'' reported by Burke on election eve, it is likely that Abbott will ultimately succeed in, if not stopping the boats, reducing their number to a trickle. The question to be answered then is clear: what price will have been paid?
Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.