Howard's strong policies meant more refugees but fewer boats.

SURELY after another known tragedy of lost lives because people smugglers are able to sell unsafe places on boats to get to Australia, the Gillard government will finally shut the door on people smuggling.

The government must now remove the so-called pull factors that encourage people to risk their lives. Labor must take down the ''Come on down'' sign that makes some of its supporters feel so good, but actually costs lives.

When I was minister for immigration in the Howard government, one of the Indonesian ministers visited Australia to discuss border protection, among other things. My job was to reinforce the reasoning for our then strong border protection policies. He had a very sombre approach, but when I said ''Ada gula ada semut'' - ''where there is sugar ants will be'' - he had a glint in his eye. It is just common sense.

Tough border protection is not about being anti refugees. This is a ruse run by do-gooders who, in contrast to their sweet self-image, like to peddle hatred by asserting that people who don't think as they do are racists or uncaring.

During my time as immigration minister, we increased our intake of refugees, through the United Nations refugee agency, by a massive 50 per cent, while maintaining strong border protection. And we stopped the boats. For the government to now offer to set up an independent inquiry to look at the effectiveness of these policies seems to me no more than an unnecessary stalling tactic.

The people that use people smugglers fall within a range of categories, some with better credentials to take a refugee place than others. What all the boat arrivals have in common is a desire for Australian permanent residence and, hopefully, citizenship. But the UN Convention does not give a right to choose the country in which one will be protected.

I think it is fair to say that those who have travelled through three or four other countries before coming to Australia are no longer fleeing persecution but are rather seeking the citizenship of their choice. Who wouldn't want the golden visa card that Australian permanent residence or citizenship brings? While that is on offer, we are tempting people to get on the boats.

The government needs to reintroduce both offshore processing and temporary protection visas, or a variation thereof. Something that says: ''If it becomes safe for you, we will assist you to resettle home. In the meantime, phone home and tell them they are not coming.''

The Malaysian solution was never going to be all the government hoped. A half-smart people-smuggling network would quickly send 800 people to Australia for no fee, just to fill the limited number Malaysia was prepared to take. They may even then pay for those 800 to get from Malaysia back to Indonesia. Then the boats with paying customers would start again. It might increase their cost of doing business, but it would not stop the trade. What will do that is taking the goodies off the table.

Last Monday on this page, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser made a contribution to this debate, labelling the Coalition's policy both evil and inhumane. It's the use of these words that got him the headline and it is typical of the hate-style politics that some seek to practise. (We've seen a bit more of it over the past week in the ''Let's get stuck into Gina'' campaign.) Fraser might like to consider what humanity there is in continuing to attract people on to these boats when so many have lost their lives in horrific circumstances.

He says Australia does not have an asylum seeker problem because the percentage of people arriving unlawfully by boat is small compared to the number of people who cross our borders each year. It is an apple-and-orange comparison.

The fact that millions of people do lawfully enter and leave Australia each year has nothing to do with the fact that thousands are choosing to land on our shores with the aid of people smugglers, having passed through other safe countries so they can live in the land of the golden visa card.

Where we are the country of first asylum, as we were with the Indonesian West Papuans in 2006, of course there can be no question. They did not go through three or four other countries first in order to force our hand. We were their nearest port of call, and we gave protection. They were a completely different category to those on the boats that come through Indonesia.

Thankfully, in a free country such as Australia everyone is entitled to voice their opinion. Former prime ministers are no exception. But I don't recall hearing Fraser's former nemesis and now friend, Gough Whitlam, publicly attacking his own party in the way that Fraser has.

There are plenty of people keen to argue the case for leaving onshore processing in place, for community detention and for letting almost everyone stay. With a throwaway line of ''send back the ones who are not refugees'', they reveal how little they know of the difficulties in doing just that.

These people are engaging in conspicuous compassion - it is more a statement to the world about how they would like to be seen than it is about the object of their concern. It is nothing more than the politics of convenience.

There is nothing humane or compassionate about enticing people to risk a horrific death.

For heaven's sake, take the sugar off the table.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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