Editorial: Guilt by association

17:53, Feb 11 2013

"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me", the Statue of Liberty's inscription reads, in one of the most moving welcomes to those seeking a new life in a foreign land.

Welcomes of a different sort were on the minds of John Key and Julia Gillard when they struck a deal on boat people at the weekend. The two prime ministers were intent on united action to help legitimise Australia's handling of that sorry human traffic - handling meant to discourage those contemplating launching themselves on the tempestuous ocean, making for Australia.

No such discouragement will result from the agreement that we will take 150 people a year from Australia's detention camps. It will not lessen the appalling trade in people. If anything, it will encourage embarcations because it offers the slight chance that people will find permanent residence in this country.

But such calculations miss the point. The deal's importance is in New Zealand's being seen to support Australia in a world pretty much uniformly hostile to its handling of boat people. We have, in effect, said that the processing of the refugees outside Australia's borders - a practice that seeks to remove any obligation from Australia to provide a permanent home - is all right with us, and that gives the policy a little more international legitimacy.

As many Australians recognise, the off-shore detention is the outcome of squalid politics, beginning with John Howard's demonising of the boat people and exaggerating their threat. The effectiveness of the scare tactics, also employed after Howard left the scene, forced Gillard to reopen the foreign detention centres - centres of human misery.

The world will little notice our guilt by association with that policy and the impact of the 150 boat people here will be minimal. They will be part of our 750 yearly refugee quota and therefore will not strain resettlement programmes. But the 150 inherited from Australia may prove to be people merely seeking a better life, and they will oust from the quota 150 other refugees - people displaced by violence and other forms of oppression. That is a pity.