Illustration: Andrew Dyson
CHRIS Bowen was guest speaker at the federal parliamentary press gallery dinner last night. He had been asked to address the function when it was set for early in the year, but it had to be deferred. That's a metaphor for Bowen's political life. Whatever can go wrong, generally does.
It's a measure of his keep-on-keeping-on style that he was willing to front up at the rescheduled event.
When the time came, it must have been the last thing the Immigration Minister wanted to do. The journalists like these speeches to have a good quotient of levity, a challenging task for the minister just now.
The paradox of Bowen is that most Canberra observers would say that he is a good minister, but clearly his area of asylum-seeker policy is now a shambles.
In the latest iteration, which Bowen announced this week, arrivals coming after August 13 - when offshore processing was announced - who are processed in Australia and judged to be refugees will have to live on welfare for up to five years. This response to the influx of boats is because the offshore processing that Labor made much of simply can't cope with the numbers.
The latest step applies the ''no advantage'' test (asylum seekers won't get settlement quicker by paying a smuggler) to people whether processed onshore or offshore.
But the measure is flawed. Apart from being extremely harsh on the individuals, it may not be a strong enough deterrent and it could be dangerous for the domestic consensus that is so important for refugee policy generally and immigration broadly.
Take the deterrent issue. Current asylum seekers can be divided into two categories. Those from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq form one; in the other are the Sri Lankans, whose numbers have increased dramatically from midyear. In October, about 1250 of more than 2200 arrivals were Sri Lankans.
The government dubs many of the Sri Lankans (notably the Sinhalese) economic refugees, who don't pass the test as ''genuine'' refugees. Since offshore processing was announced, 565 Sri Lankans have been repatriated, including 40 on Thursday.
The Sri Lankans so far have not got the message that they are likely to be sent home. They may or may not understand that even if they do manage to get through the process, they will not be able to earn any money in Australia.
Whether they will be deterred will depend substantially on the effectiveness of the government's propaganda efforts, which have not so far succeeded.
With the approach of the bad weather season, which causes some slowing in boat traffic, the government needs in this lull to make a huge effort to get its message out.
If the Sri Lankans could be discouraged, the problem would be more manageable. But there would still be a sizeable inflow (Iranians have recently been the most numerous of other nationalities - in August, September and October more than 400 arrived each month).
Will the prospect of several years on welfare be a strong deterrent to those genuinely fleeing persecution? While it is heartless to deny someone the opportunity to make a proper living, if the choice is between being on welfare in Australia or languishing in an Asian refugee camp, the Australian option is likely to be attractive.
And attractive as it may seem to asylum seekers, domestically it would be politically problematic.
Imagine what the shock jocks, who earn big dollars by fanning prejudice, would be saying about these people - especially in an election year when boat arrivals will be a big issue. A laudable part of the government policy has been to expand the general refugee intake. It would be a tragedy if the no-work policy created a backlash against that program.
One positive aspect in the Howard years was that despite the divisiveness of the asylum seeker issue, at the individual level, people who had arrived on boats were often well received as diligent workers, especially in regional areas. Howard's temporary protection visas threatened people with eventual return to their home countries, but did allow them to get jobs.
If the refugees are not able to work, it will be easier for those who are unsympathetic to demonise them. Just as politicians try to do with asylum seekers.
Tony Abbott consistently refers to ''illegal'' arrivals, basing it on some wording in the refugee convention. But that wording cuts two ways. Article 31 does make a reference to ''illegal entry'', but says a country shall not impose penalties on this account.
In the Australian debate, the word ''illegal'' just serves a political purpose. Labor attacks the Liberals for using it; the Liberals dredge up Julia Gillard's 2010 speech to the Lowy Institute when she referred to the Australian Federal Police working with regional neighbours to prevent ''more than 5000 foreign nationals coming to our shores illegally''. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees says it does not use or encourage the use of the term ''illegal'' arrivals - the politicians should follow its example.
The handling of asylum seekers by both sides of politics has tarnished Australia's reputation abroad. Many countries, with much larger influxes, believe Australia has grossly overreacted.
Be that as it may, the arrival numbers pose a hugely difficult issue for the government. In trying to deal with it, Labor has firmly in mind the negative perceptions of voters in western Sydney. In pursuing Labor, the Liberals have in their nostrils the strong smell of political advantage.
It is easy to find holes in what the government has done this week. But it's another matter to say what policy adjustment would best meet the three criteria of humanity, effectiveness and community acceptability. If you find that comment too inconclusive, try the exercise of coming up with a good balance yourself.
Michelle Grattan is The Age's political editor.