It was, yes, a day of extraordinary drama in the House of Representatives.

Normal business was suspended. MPs openly wept. Nearly all speakers were heard in funereal silence. MPs congregated in strange clusters, disengaged, and reformed into others equally exotic, like free-floating cells trying to combine into a viable form. The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young sat in the distinguished visitors’ gallery behind the Coalition, joined at various stages by admixtures of colleague Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Mal Washer and Julie Bishop.

Warren Entsch hovered uncertainly just out of earshot of conversations. Mal Washer seemed to be unable to move without Julie Bishop either accompanying him or watching him intently. Joel Fitzgibbon at times took up a spot on the frontbench (where, of course, he feels he rightly belongs) to count off numbers with Anthony Albanese. Off-stage, equally animated talks were occurring.

Parliament had been shamed into this frantic activity by news of yet another boat sinking. The shame, however, didn’t extend to actual agreement. That viable form was never achieved. The government secured a notable win in engineering Rob Oakeshott’s bill through the house, with support from Andrew Wilkie once a sunset clause was added. But defeat of the bill in the Senate awaits at the hands of the Greens and the Coalition. The house and Senate will rise, MPs and senators will return home, the boats will continue to sink.

MPs can cry at the dispatch box all they like. Everyone’s emotional on this issue — voters, journalists, politicians. But only the latter are the ones who get the chance to do something about it, unlike the rest of us. And the Coalition and the Greens have elected not to do anything about it.

Let us carefully note the reasons why the bill will fail. Despite the government agreeing to adopt the useless measure of Nauru, which as a mere footnote will cost the best part of a billion dollars, and agreeing to consider temporary protection visas, the Coalition objects because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. It had no such concerns when in government, when Nauru hadn’t signed the UN Convention. And its concerns aren’t genuine now, because Indonesia, to where the Coalition would return refugees on boats that remain seaworthy, isn’t a signatory either.

It’s a tissue-thin justification for opposition, this Damascene conversion to human rights by the Coalition. And to see Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews, men whose records as ministers included savage assaults on basic civil rights, stand up to lecture the chamber was to feel more than a little sick.

And the Greens also maintain that the Malaysia deal is inconsistent with our UN Treaty obligations, that Australia’s priority should be to meet its treaty obligations, increase its humanitarian intake and that we should focus on a “real” regional solution, the nature of which isn’t exactly clear. Unlike the Coalition, the Greens aren’t latecomers to the idea of the importance of the UN Refugee Convention. But bear in mind the Greens’ membership is intensely hostile to anything other than onshore processing, meaning any decision to not oppose the bill would cause severe ructions within the party.

The elevation of our treaty obligations over any policy that might reduce the chances of people dying is legally correct, of course. It’s also morally blind, elevating adherence to the terms of a decades-old document over the possibility of saving lives. It substitutes sticking to a treaty for making hard decisions about what the least worst ways are of keeping people alive. What’s worse, getting caned in Malaysia, or drowning between Indonesia and Christmas Island? What’s worse, a child who has been put on a boat unaccompanied by her parents being sent to Malaysia or a child drowning? Don’t like the questions or the answers? That’s what we’re stuck with.

These are hard choices. Countries around the world grapple with the problem of stopping people from risking their lives fleeing to other countries either out of fear of persecution or for economic reasons. Thousands of people die every year in such circumstances. Obsessing over UN treaties or focusing on Malaysia’s human rights record is a fig leaf for an unwillingness to think rigorously about how to save lives.

At least we now have agreement about the need to increase our humanitarian intake, from all sides, although Tony Abbott seems to think the idea of taking an extra 5000 refugees a year would pose some complex dilemma that needs a special committee to resolve. But an increase in our intake was part and parcel of Chris Bowen’s Malaysian solution, as was increased assistance to the UNHCR. The government has already reached that policy position without needing additional drownings to motivate it. Australia can and should do more to resettle refugees — even if only on the self-interested basis that it will reduce the pressure that drives people to try to reach here by boats.

When the politicians return home today and tomorrow, with the problem unresolved, they’ll all be reflecting on exactly what they’ve done. And when the next boat sinks, those who have blocked an attempt to solve the problem should think about their own culpability.