Mike Steketee in The Australian sets the debate over “boat people” — but strangely not his own paper’s rather alarmist “Rising tide” coverage — in an informed context:

The latest report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says asylum applications in Australia increased by 19 per cent last year, from 3980 to 4750. How many came by boat? Actually, 179 or fewer than 4 per cent.

This year the number of boat people is already higher, at 221. But it still is tiny compared with those coming by air. And total refugee flows to Australia are much smaller than those experienced by other countries.

Today we have proof that while boat-borne asylum seekers may be only a small, highly visible subset of total asylum seekers, they are clearly the most desperate of all the many thousands trying to make a new life in this country. As the ABC reports:

At least three people are reported to have been killed and dozens more are injured following an explosion on board an asylum-seekers’ boat being escorted to Christmas Island this morning.

Hospitals in Darwin and Broome have been told to expect an influx of casualties from the boat, which was carrying 49 people who are believed to be from Afghanistan.

The issue will flare from here. Already opposition spokespeople are lining up to brand the Rudd Government a soft touch for illegal arrivals, a group exclusively characterised in the public imagination as boat people bobbing off our north western coast. This is nonsense, a cynical, politically opportunist projection. That people are so maddened by misfortune and circumstance that they will take to the sea in pursuit of not much more than faint hope is a tragedy, not a political opportunity.

The Howard Government used boat people as an emblematic threat, a bogey that would allow it to show itself to be a hairy-chested and resolute defender of our boarders in a time of war on terror.

That moment has passed. Our understanding of international circumstances is becoming more sophisticated and increasingly conditioned by many more factors than simple, visceral fear. There is a risk for the current opposition that in taking too old-school a line on boat people they will be seen as Howardite relics. There is a risk for the Rudd Government that they will bullied into being exactly the same.