An asylum seeker's protest in Nauru yesterday. Photo: Angela Wylie
Failure has morphed Julia Gillard's Pacific Solution into an almost exact copy of John Howard's once derided version.
The big shift came in August, when Labor accepted that stopping the boats, and the drownings, should become the overriding policy goal.
Its ''expert panel'' recommended a combination of cruelty and kindness, of incentives for asylum seekers to stay where they are and disincentives designed to make Australia an unattractive destination for would-be boat arrivals. It said the package as a whole would dissuade people from making the dangerous trip.
But the Coalition refused to accept the incentives to stay - including the panel's recommended revamp of the Malaysia people swap deal.
Despite having received advice from its own department that disincentives alone - temporary protection visas and offshore processing - would not stop asylum boat arrivals, the government proceeded with that part of the plan anyway.
And as predicted, the boats did not stop, nor even slow - so by Labor's own definition its policy was a failure. That leaves the government entering an election year trapped in the worst of both worlds.
It is attacked for the ''cruelty'' and inhumanity of conditions on Nauru and also attacked by the Coalition because the boat arrivals are still not slowing.
Coalition spokesman Scott Morrison has calculated that more asylum seekers have arrived by boat since Labor came to power in 2007 than the population of Alice Springs - a vivid comparison he can keep updating. In a few weeks it will be Lismore, then Bathurst. By the time of the next election the ''crisis'' of arrivals might be up to Dubbo proportions.
So Labor has reached for another solutions harking back to the Howard era - bridging visas for refugees processed onshore that will leave them in a devastating and poverty-stricken legal limbo-world for five years or maybe even longer, in many ways similar to the situation of the people to whom the Howard government gave temporary protection visas.
The absence of the incentives, the reasons to stay off the boats, may be part of the reason this new ''Pacific Solution'' is not achieving its stated objective.
But whatever the reason, Labor is politically locked in to its stated objective - achieving a big slowdown in the boat arrivals, and for now it has to rely on the ''cruel'' disincentives to send a rapid message of dissuasion.