Cost no object – Rudd just wants the asylum seekers in someone else’s backyard

Kevin Rudd has moved to the right on asylum seeker policy, hoping to court voters. AAP/Dan Peled

Kevin Rudd has pulled out every available stop to persuade voters that he can stop the boats - not immediately, but eventually.

The Australian government has spectacularly outsourced its asylum seeker problem. It has effectively agreed to pay whatever is needed to compensate Papua New Guinea for coming to its assistance.

Rudd does not want to see any more of these boat people, never mind how genuine their cases, able to stay in Australia. The deal he has crafted with PNG is for that country to take the future arrivals. They will be processed there by PNG and those found to be refugees will be settled in that country.

There are no figures yet on what this will cost – it will be in the billions – but Rudd promises it will be budget-neutral and that details will come later. It sounds like another massive savings job – while the government is still trying to cope with the backlash over the crackdown on the car FBT arrangement that part-financed the new carbon policy. (Of course there would be economies in the long term as arrivals fell.)

Will the draconian “PNG solution” work as a deterrent? Nobody can be sure. Even Rudd says it will be a bumpy road. And he is indicating people shouldn’t expect quick results.

What he is asking voters to do is to believe in him.

Tony Abbott immediately welcomed the agreement – what else could he do in response to such a tough policy? The endorsement is useful for Rudd. But Abbott said the policy wouldn’t work with Rudd in charge.

For the second time in a week - the other was carbon - Abbott finds himself outflanked on a key battleground.

There are some potential points of vulnerability in the policy.

One is how quickly the process can be swung into action. The Manus Island facility will have to be expanded and other facilities set up.

Manus has been criticised by the UNHCR. Children and a number of family groups have just been removed. Immigration Minister Tony Burke said women and children would not be sent there in the short term, although “the intention is that as the temporary facility moves to a permanent facility, anybody who arrives from now on will be subject to the new rules”.

If this initiative takes too long to get into full swing, the people smugglers will simply tell clients that the Australian government will not be able to live up to its rhetoric.

And if the government has to make exemptions – as past experience suggests does happen - that too would weaken the deterrent.

PNG obviously stands to get a financial bonanza out of the deal. The costs of the asylum seekers will be covered by Australia and there will be a heap of assistance for other areas, including health, education and law and order.

But there are also risks for the PNG government. If it takes a long time for the inflow to taper off, a large number of people could end up there, and that could lead to a domestic reaction in that country. The numbers are open-ended for a year.

Rudd being Rudd, the king-hit policy comes with some other trappings. He has been in touch with the United Nations secretary- general and said that Australia will convene a conference of transit and destination countries to discuss improving global arrangements on processing systems and centres and resettlement.

There is some irony in Australia unloading its problem onto its developing neighbour while at the same time seeking to show international leadership on the broad issue.

As significant as the PNG deal (possibly more so) is the decision that Indonesia has just taken to adopt a harder line to people arriving from Iran. Thousands of Iranians are making use of Indonesia’s easy visa system and then jumping on boats to Australia.

These are the “economic migrants” that the government has been saying must be stopped. Indonesia has previously done less than it could to block these people.

The Australian government is also working on tougher processing arrangements for those already here.

Rudd has done an extraordinary full circle on asylum seeker policy in only a few years. His government rejected and dismantled the Pacific solution. He has admitted since taking back the leadership that it then failed to act quickly enough in 2009-10 when the trade was getting underway again.

In his news conference on the night of the 2010 coup against him he warned against a lurch to the right on asylum policy.

Now he has taken his own huge step to the right.

He says one has to respond to changing circumstances.

On each occasion he has managed to sound sincere and convincing as he articulated his position. That is his political skill.

His strategy now is to paint Abbott as having a mantra - Stop the Boats - but not a realistic policy to deliver on it. Rudd is putting forward a policy to counter that mantra and, if it works, also to deliver on it.