Even the Left-leaning writer below can see that

TONY Abbott’s embrace of the Pacific Solution to deter boat arrivals will be popular but it affirms the deeper story about the Coalition: it is smart on politics but weak on governing credentials.

Its new hard line on boat people is a “trust us” declaration that invokes the John Howard brand. This is a case of Abbott being Howard, hence his remark that “my values are very, very similar to those of John Howard”. Because this statement is true, Abbott’s pledge that his policy “is about stopping the boats” will resonate deeply.

Liberal Party research shows boat arrivals remain a red-hot issue. Much of the sentiment is ugly, hostile and deep-seated. As usual, Abbott has taken an absolutist stance: facing a complex challenge he offers populist purism. “We’ve done it before, we will do it again,” he said. “Stop the boats, we must. Stop the boats, we will.” The message: Kevin Rudd is weak on boat arrivals and Abbott is strong. That’s it. Roger, over and out.

It is a variation of his stance on the resource super-profits tax. “This great big new tax has already put all investment decisions on hold,” Abbott said in his budget reply. “The Coalition will oppose the mining tax in opposition and we will rescind it in government.” No debate, no qualifications. No concession that taxing profits is the superior principle in a resource tax regime. Abbott’s stance is policy must not hinder politics. Indeed, he told 2GB’s Alan Jones this week that miners “are paying more than their fair share of tax”, a claim much of the industry doesn’t even make in its self-defence.

Such absolutism gives Abbott a cut-through quality that maximises his mobilisation of anti-Labor sentiment. People know what he stands for. But it raises another question: is running Australia this simple? Julia Gillard said yesterday that on boat people Abbott had “a slogan, not a solution”. The day before Rudd dismissed Abbott for having no resources tax policy whatsoever despite his campaign.

The opening Labor seeks is obvious: Abbott can coin a slogan but you wouldn’t want him running the country. In a sense the more progress Abbott makes the more Rudd depicts him as motor-mouth but not a viable prime minister. During a campaign Rudd’s capacity to mount a disciplined argument that he is better able to manage the challenges of office should not be discounted.

Beneath Abbott’s populism lies his obsession with values. Policy is hard; values are easy. Policy is about balancing competing interests; values are about taking stands. Such tensions are accentuated in the asylum-seeker debate; this is difficult policy but lends itself to populist hyperbole.

Rudd is susceptible because he tried to find a compromise (protecting the borders but softening Howard’s repression of asylum-seekers) only to face a resurgence of boats.

So far in 2009-10 there have been 104 boats carrying 4893 people, the highest number on record.

This triggers an iron law of Australian politics: any prime minister is vulnerable if unable to halt the flow of boats. Put another way, every PM needs to show credibility as a border protectionist. Much of the media either cannot grasp or cannot accept this logic but it has complex and legitimate roots in our political culture.

In a tactic to intensify the heat, Abbott and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison have unveiled a revised policy resting on three principles: where possible the Coalition will turn back the boats; all unauthorised arrivals will be processed offshore and this means negotiating “to establish an offshore processing detention centre in another country” to supplement Christmas Island because it is now at capacity; and restoration of temporary protection visas for unauthorised arrivals, with such people having no family reunion rights and no right to re-enter the country if they depart, thereby allowing the Coalition to lift Labor’s discriminatory treatment of Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum-seekers.

How such pledges would work in practice is highly speculative. Abbott and Morrison know their policy is riddled with uncertainty. Turning back the boats requires another nation’s co-operation, usually Indonesia. Immigration Minister Chris Evans says under Howard only seven boats were returned and none after 2003. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer said, Jakarta was prepared to allow some tow-backs after the Tampa crisis but this was kept as quiet as possible. Scope to revive this technique seems most improbable with Indonesia hardly a willing conscript. Morrison concedes prospects rest entirely on regional relations.

The Coalition’s position on offshore processing duplicates Howard’s Pacific Solution. This arose in 2001 because Howard refused to have the Tampa people processed in Australia and his government intimidated and bribed agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea for detention and processing facilities.

Morrison refuses to nominate which country an Abbott government would favour for such a deal. Obviously, it could only be revealed in office. The policy says “processing in another country provides the necessary deterrent to discourage illegal boat arrivals”. It means intercepted boats would be “taken to non-Australian territory”. This equates to a tactic of permanent boat diversion.

Could an Abbott government strike such an arrangement? The Coalition wants the International Organisation for Migration to operate the facility with support from other regional nations.

In this sense it would be an expensive regional solution difficult to negotiate. Coalition policy says Australia would accept some refugees from such offshore processing but “we will not take blanket responsibility for all those transferred to this facility”.

Abbott has drawn a fresh line in the sand. “At the moment the Rudd government is bringing illegal arrivals onshore,” he said. “That must not happen.” Delivering this declaration relies on truly heroic assumptions: that a willing nation can be found and other parties will agree to Australia’s conditions. Abbott’s claim he sees no reason why negotiations would not succeed is blind optimism.

How smart is the Coalition to revive the Pacific Solution? It faced no compulsion to do this. While the public wants the boats stopped, the Pacific Solution is hardly calculated to win mass applause. The political lesson, however, is that once the boats flow the winner is the leader taking the toughest stand. This is the essence of Abbott’s tactic. Rudd cannot out-tough Abbott on this. For Labor, Howard’s Pacific Solution was the most detested of all his border protection measures, so its revival maximises the differences between Coalition and Labor.

A similar argument applies to the Coalition’s commitment to temporary protection visas. The evidence under Howard is they had a poor record as deterrents or as workable policy instruments. Yet they put more product discrimination between Labor and Coalition over boat people.

This week’s events will shape the election campaign. The Coalition plans an intense and researched assault in the campaign proper around asylum-seekers, surely with paid advertising as Abbott matches Howard’s border protection message. If a series of boats arrive in the week before the vote, the effect will be inflammatory and unpredictable.

This policy release sets the scene. Morrison said: “We have had 60 boats arrive this year. They are arriving at a rate of more than three per week where in the last six years of the Coalition government they were arriving at a rate of three per year.”

While last Thursday’s Coalition policy must have been released with an eye to the weekend Newspoll, its long-run purpose is more important. The lesson is that Abbott will wipe the floor with Rudd as a populist. Labor needs to grasp this and act on it. Its strategy must be to present itself as the more capable, responsible and disciplined team for government.