Ah, the return of the living dead.

Old habits die hard with Philip Ruddock. About as hard as Ruddock’s own progressive principles died when he had a sniff of ministerial power. He happily became John Howard’s go-to man in the demonization of asylum-seekers and the minister responsible for that high point in Australian public life, the reference to a boy locked up in Villawood Detention Centre as “it”.

The Government’s “softening” of illegal immigration laws has now, according to Ruddock, produced a “pipeline” of 10,000 people a year trying to get to Australia.

You know what goes through pipelines. Not people. Maybe water, at best, but more likely sludge, or some highly unpleasant chemical. Sewage, perhaps.

Those 10,000 pipelines, we know, are of course not white people.

Ruddock, like some of its colleagues, must be thoroughly flummoxed that Australians have thus far greeted the rise in boat arrivals generated by the Sri Lankan civil war and other regional conflicts with a reasonable amount of equanimity. It’s not like the good old days, when a single boatload of asylum seekers could be guaranteed to tap into that deep-seated Australian fear of invasion from the north by different-coloured hordes.

The flow of arrivals via boat of course remains an entirely trivial immigration problem. If you’re obsessed about border control, you should be picketing our airports, where illegal immigrants and future visa overstayers arrive every day by the hundreds. In July last year there were 48,500 people in Australia unlawfully, and nearly all of them got off a plane.

Philip Ruddock will tell you the Howard Government stopped the boats. But how’d it go stopping the other 95+% of people who aren’t supposed to be here?

Well, turns out, not so good. In fact, so badly its Department stopped publishing the statistics in its annual report, and only properly resumed when the numbers started coming back down again after it had been replaced as Immigration Minister.

There were 45,000 people in Australia unlawfully in 1996, when Ruddock first applied its tender ministrations to the Immigration portfolio. The following year they shot up to 51,000. A good start for Ruddock, but it was just warming up. Immigration stopped reporting the numbers for a couple of years, but when we next see them, in 2000, they’d climbed to nearly 59,000.

And as we learn from the Department’s 2004 annual report, they’d peaked at 59,800 in the last months of Ruddock’s stint as minister. So it presided over a 33% increase in illegal immigrants. Nice work, and it didn’t even have a pipeline to help it.