No issue in our national life produces more cant, hypocrisy, posturing and downright disregard for facts and history than that of illegal immigrants coming to Australia’s northern shores by boat.

Two important recent developments are [conservative] Tony Abbott’s announcement that no one who comes here illegally by boat will get permanent residency and the [Leftist] Rudd government’s suspension of the assessment of asylum applications by Sri Lankans for three months, and Afghans for six months. The government also said the situation in both countries was improving and therefore more of those asylum-seekers could in due course probably be sent home.

The Rudd government is moving crab-wise towards a [conservative] Howard government position (effectively restoring indefinite mandatory detention), that they will be generous to refugees but the Australian government will choose which refugees come here.

This has virtually always been the Australian way.

John Howard’s insight was to understand that it would be impossible to sustain support for a big immigration program if substantial numbers of illegal boats were coming.

No one is really qualified to express a view in this debate who has not read Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, which demonstrates categorically that asylum-seekers in Europe were not primarily refugees but extremely determined illegal immigrants.

That doesn’t make them bad people, but it means the highly emotional response is misplaced.

Australia will always take refugees, but it is up to the government, representing the people, to determine how many and which ones. We might take all sorts of criteria into account, such as the degree of need, but also the prospects of such people settling well, whether they have relatives or other support here and so on.

Both sides of politics agree that we will take about 13,500 refugees a year, so any boatperson who is allowed in takes away the place of someone elsewhere in the program. No politician has argued that boatpeople be added to the total intake. There are really only two effective positions.

One is to deny the people smugglers the ability to deliver Australian permanent residency to their clients. They will then stop running the boats.

The other is to accept that whoever manages to physically get here gets to stay permanently. Life in Australia is a glittering and magnificent prize. A few months at a camp is unlikely to deter people who have that prize in sight. Sending them back home at the end of the detention period, as the government is foreshadowing, may well do so, though it would be better to do that quickly rather than slowly.

The Rudd government has lost control of the boats, with nearly 5000 people arriving since it came to office. Rudd should understand this plainly. That rate of arrivals will destroy support for the immigration program.

Previous governments have been much harsher than the Howard government was, but much less effective. The most anti-immigration modern prime minister was surely [Leftist] Gough Whitlam.

It is the fashion these days to be nice to Whitlam, because he is indeed a very nice old chap. But this should not obscure the central reality of his government, that it was a catastrophic failure in economic management and countless bad consequences flowed from that.

In 1975, under Whitlam, barely 50,000 immigrants came to Australia, and more Australians left permanently than immigrants came into the country, a stupendously shocking result.

Whitlam was extraordinarily cruel to Vietnamese who had worked for or associated closely with the Australian embassy and army in South Vietnam. By the fall of Saigon, two planeloads of orphans – 280 kids in all – and only 78 other Vietnamese had come to Australia. Hundreds associated with Australia were left to the tender mercies of the communists.

Malcolm Fraser [conservative] presents himself as a great saint on refugees, but no one participates in this debate more dishonestly than Fraser. In fact in opposition in 1975 Fraser had called for only a small number of Vietnamese to be brought to Australia. He was slow to allow any refugees to come to Australia after he became prime minister. In his seven years in office only 2000 Vietnamese came to Australia by boat.

I remember as a student campaigning hard to get Fraser to allow Vietnamese to come to Australia as refugees and this only happened towards the end of the 1970s and in the overwhelming context of a push led by the US for international resettlement. In that context it would have been inconceivable for an Australian government to do much less.

Fraser loves to laud his humanitarianism, but there is much less to it than meets the eye. The vast majority of Vietnamese who came here under Fraser did so either after being selected by Australian officials in UNHCR camps, just exactly as happens today with the majority of our quota of 13,500 refugees, or as a normal part of the family reunion migration program after other family members had been settled here. Fraser’s record on eventually accepting substantial numbers of Vietnamese is good.

The Vietnamese have been a wonderful success in Australia. But exactly like Howard, Fraser was determined to stop people coming here directly by boat. Australians have a long history of being generous to refugees and to migrants generally provided they come to Australia in an orderly process supervised by the Australian government.

Many Afghans who come to Australia go through Pakistan, catch a flight to Malaysia, get another flight or boat to Indonesia, then join a boat to Australia and on the journey get rid of their documents. It is perfectly understandable that they want to live in Australia. It is not, however, a refugee situation.

Other nationalities who come on tourist visas and then claim refugee status have entered legally, they have documentation and they can be sent home if their claims are unsuccessful, which gives assessors more of an incentive to turn them down.

The assessment process on Christmas Island, in the absence of documents, is extremely subjective. The Rudd government’s latest moves are not likely to stop the flow of boats. Nonetheless they are a move in the right direction.