While the numbers of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat remains small, the political impact was growing. Seemingly every day, a new media alert would appear from Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor’s office announcing yet another boat had been intercepted.

The issue has yet to ignite with the public in the way it did in 2001, but the steady stream of boats gave the sense that a highway into Australia had been opened via Christmas Island and it was becoming packed with traffic.

The bulk of the arrivals were from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Last year, Afghanistan once again became the world’s biggest source of asylum seekers, with more than 26,000 Afghans seeking refuge outside their country, mainly in Europe.

The UNHCR’s review of circumstances in Sri Lanka has given the Government the cover it needs to send a signal that it is prepared to be tough on asylum seekers as well as people smugglers. Essential Research polling released earlier this week showed most voters thought the Government was too soft on the issue.

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The Government’s announcement of temporary suspensions of processing of asylum claims by Afghans and Sri Lankans will induce a furious reaction from refugee advocates, the Greens, and perhaps even some Labor MPs. That will be exactly what the Government wants — criticism that it is mimicking the Howard Government on the issue will play well with mainstream voters who voted Labor in 2007, but who might be prepared to let their anti-refugee views sway their vote this time around.

The Government was justifiably proud of its amendments to remove the excesses of the Howard Government’s treatment of asylum seekers, which had in any event been softened over time.

But there is no way it will permit asylum seekers or their local advocates to endanger its re-election. This is straight-out, brutal realpolitik.

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