“The Australian government makes no apology for deciding when certain people who come here as asylum seekers are not legitimate asylum seekers” — Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister.

“We no longer determine who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come here. Mr Rudd has given up that right, the right that should be part of being a sovereign country.” — Tony Abbott, Opposition leader.

“Our determination to stop the boats would be equal to when we were last in government and John Howard did stop the boats. We are not ruling anything out.” — Scott Morrison, Opposition spokesman.

Remind you of anything? Yes, the rhetoric is hotting up in much the same way as it did in the weeks before the 2001 election, the Tampa election, the children overboard election, the race election.

Of course, Howard and his machine men vigorously denied that their dark victory had anything to do with race, or at least not much. In fact it wasn’t really about the boat people at all, it was about all sorts of other things like, um, er, leadership.

But the polling booths, each festooned with Howard’s implacable proclamation: “We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances under which they come” told a different story. Certainly the punters got the message: voters were recorded leaving the booths and gloating: “I voted for Johnny because he knows how to deal with the towel heads.”

It was a less than edifying episode in Australian history and one that, most of us had hoped, would never be repeated. But now Tony Abbott seems to be heading in that unsavoury direction. In the absence of any other clear policy from the Opposition, he has declared that the boat people will be a major issue at this year’s poll.

Not the only issue, of course; let us not forget pink batts and school assembly halls. But since neither of those grave matters seems to be capturing the imagination of the public — despite the very best efforts of the Murdoch press — we will have to rely on the asylum seekers.

And we know they can be relied on. It is still not clear what causes the atavistic fear of boat people in the Australian psyche. It is demonstrably irrational; the vast majority of asylum seekers arrive by air, and in any case constitute less than one tenth of one percent of Australia’s annual immigration. Yet somehow the boat people are supposed to represent a threat not only to our borders, but to our national security. Kevin Rudd has in fact unleashed the resources of ASIO against these leaky vessels carrying insignificant numbers of the desperate and destitute into our waters.

So why the paranoia? My own theory is that it has to do with residual guilt. The original settlers arrived by boat, and from 1788 the trickle became a flood. Resistance was offered, but it was too little and too late: the Australian nation — in fact a great many Australian nations — were overwhelmed, their way of life destroyed and their people killed, expelled from their lands and marginalised. It has happened before; just possibly it could happen again. Maybe, if we are not careful, the whirligig of time may yet bring in its revenges.

But whatever the cause, we know from the 2001 experience that the issue is a hot one, and that it would not take much to revive it in an election year. Admittedly, Rudd has done his best to take at least some of the heat out of it. Where Howard and his ministers such as the vampiric Phillip Ruddock talked of the asylum seekers as queue jumpers, illegals, disease carriers, drug peddlers, potential terrorists and eventually child murderers, not the sort of people you would want in this country unless they were permanently confined behind razor wire, Rudd has urged compassion; his words and actions have been humane with the closure of the hell holes of Nauru and Manus Island, the abolition of the psychological torture of Temporary Protection Visas and the relatively speedy processing of claims.

But, unwilling to appear soft on border protection, he has gone over the top about people smugglers, “the scum of the earth who should burn in hell forever”. They may not all be in the mould of one of his own heroes, the anti-Nazi people smuggler Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but they are still providing a service the asylum seekers desire and use. To demonise them in such extravagant fashion is reminiscent of the way the Victorians used to persecute pr-stitutes while turning a sympathetic, or at least blind, eye to their clients.

But, as the quotation at the start of this piece demonstrates, Rudd and his advisers have clearly decided that he needs to counter Abbott’s bloodthirsty rhetoric with some of his own. There is a better way, and surprisingly it was most recently articulated by a normally conservative commentator, Peter van Onselen in the Weekend Australian.

Van Onselen took the high ground in his appeal for calm: “I find it disappointingly inconsistent that both our political leaders, Rudd and Tony Abbott, wear their religion on their sleeves yet neither of them practises the compassion that Christianity extols when it comes to boat people.” He acknowledges that at least some of Rudd’s actions have been compassionate but accuses Abbott of “applying the rhetoric of former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson to asylum seekers when he says that he will do whatever it takes to stop illegal boat arrivals”. Instead, he should pay more heed to the traditions of his Jesuit teachers, and embrace the concept of “compassionate conservatism”. After all many of the asylum seekers who have been accepted have become successful small businessmen, a core Liberal Party constituency.

Van Onselen concluded: “Australians shouldn’t be afraid of boat people trying to come to our country. Our geographical position means that their numbers will always be small compared with refugee migration to other parts of the world. It’s time our politicians started to lead public opinion on this issue rather than following it.” Hear, hear!