The Australian‘s practice of turning columns by its regular writers into blogs — basically by just adding a provision for reader comments at the bottom — gets extended today. Federal Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has an op-ed piece on the new refugee-swapping policy, and it too is bloggified.

As of 11am this morning there were 66 comments, running heavily against the policy.

If this is an experiment in exposing ministers to feedback, it would have been kinder to start with a more solid argument. Andrews’s case is embarrassingly bad — more a set of slogans strung together than an argument in the traditional sense.

The key point, which he keeps coming back to, is the demonisation of “people smugglers”. Stopping them is apparently the whole point of the policy — as if an anti-smoking policy was crafted not to stop people dying from lung cancer, but to stop tobacco companies making money.

In fact, the “people smugglers” discourse is a classic case of “moral panic” — a combination of fear and moral indignation that has come untethered from reality and is therefore open to political exploitation. The very mention of them is supposed to have compelling force, and frees the government from any need to explain real causes and effects.

Instead, Andrews focuses on Labor’s policy — ironically enough, he tells us much more about it than about his own. This is a long-standing Howard strategy, but against Kevin Rudd it clearly isn’t working — it seems to be just giving Labor more credibility.

Kevin Andrews may not be the brightest star in the firmament, but surely he can see that this feeble effort is a long way from being the second “Tampa” that the government needs.

Whatever other problems it had, the Santamaria-DLP tradition that Andrews comes from was never anti-refugee. Indeed, I suspect that in his own mind, the move from demonising refugees to demonising “people smugglers” is a progressive and humanitarian one. But the old rhetoric, although inhumane, at least was logically coherent.

That coherence has now gone. As David Corlett puts it in today’s Age, “Under the refugee swap deal, refugees become pawns in a broader political game. They become merely a means to an end.”