Gough Whitlam said that “only the impotent are pure”. He was referring to the state branch of the ALP in Victoria in the 1960s. It could just as well be said of the Greens today. Their posturing on asylum seekers and formerly on climate change has played into the hands of cynical opponents.

The Greens oppose overseas processing of asylum claims, yet it is the collapse of the Malaysian arrangement that has given oxygen to people smugglers persuading desperate people to take dangerous sea voyages.

It was regional processing in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand during the Fraser government that resulted in one of the most co-operative and successful managements of refugee flows in history. Regional processing is essential, but the Greens oppose it.

It is true that the number of boat arrivals who seek asylum in Australia are minuscule in world terms. More asylum seekers arrived by boat in Italy in one weekend during the Libyan crisis last August than come to Australia in a year. But we have a political problem with boats that is exploited by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. The Greens are abetting them in the name of policy purity.

It is true as the Greens say that Malaysia has not signed the Refugee Convention. But no country in the arc from Yemen to Australia has signed the convention. Asylum seekers coming to Australia come through that arc of countries. An important feature of the Malaysian arrangement was that it was a first between a signatory country to the convention (Australia) and a non-signatory country (Malaysia). UNHCR supported the substance of the arrangement and saw it as an important precedent in relations between a signatory and a non-signatory country.

We would all like countries of the region to be signatories, but the political facts are different. In any regional arrangement we have to deal with non-signatory countries. Nauru has signed the convention, but mainly for financial benefit. Even though Australia has signed the convention, mandatory detention of boat people is clearly in breach of the convention.  The UNHCR has consistently pointed to Australia’s breach of the convention.

It is also true as the Greens say that we should increase substantially our refugee intake, particularly from transit countries. Adjusted for population increase since the Indochina intake of the late 1970s and early 1980s, our present offshore intake is only about one quarter of what it was then. But the posturing of the Greens about increasing the intake does not address the immediate problem that the collapse of the Malaysian arrangement has encouraged people-smuggling.

These diversionary tactics by the Greens are designed to avoid the current pressing issue — people risking their lives in dangerous boats.

The Greens must also accept major responsibility for the decline in public support for effective action on carbon pollution. They opposed in the Senate the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme of the Rudd government. Belatedly the Greens then supported the Gillard government’s legislation, which is much inferior to the CPRS. In the intervening years we have seen acrimonious and divisive debate and a denial of the science on climate change. As a result, public support for a carbon tax or Emissions Trading Scheme has plunged from 75% in 2007 to less than 40% today. The Greens cannot wash their hands of this debacle. They triggered it in the Senate.

Whether on climate change or on asylum seekers, Australia is paying a very heavy price for the Greens’ policy purity. Asylum seekers are paying an even heavier price. The Greens have helped put the people smugglers back into business through opposition to the Malaysian arrangement. That arrangement offers the best prospects for building effective regional processing. It is far from perfect but it is an important first step.

*John Menadue is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Development and was secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs from 1980-83