On Saturday, in the report on the frequent occurrence of dreadful acts of self-harm among the asylum seekers marooned on Australia's two offshore processing centres, Fairfax Media documented what has long been obvious to common sense. The 1500 or so fellow human beings we have sent to Nauru or Manus Island, most for two years or more, are in the grip of an almost unimaginable despair.
As in my opinion and experience, most Australians would not inflict grievous suffering on innocent human beings for no reason, what needs to be explained is why as a people we are willing, in full knowledge of the facts, to refuse to settle these people in Australia and to tolerate their destruction in body and in spirit.
The principal answer is surprisingly straightforward. Between 2009 and 2013, 50,000 asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores by boat. On their way to Australia another thousand drowned. Officials in Canberra, both major political parties and the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, believe the sacrifice of those now on Nauru and Manus Island is justified in order to prevent a return of the boats. What is so terrible is that the logic underlying this argument is so easily shown to be false.
Under the Howard government between 2001 and 2007 two policies – offshore processing and tow-back where feasible to Indonesia – effectively stopped the boats. Eventually, however, most of those sent to Nauru or Manus Island were gradually and quietly settled, some in New Zealand, most in Australia. No one argued that with re-settlement the boats would return.
This was correct. Before 2007 virtually no asylum seeker boats set out for Australia.
In July 2013, during his brief second prime ministership, Kevin Rudd introduced a new deterrent policy. Not only would all asylum seekers who reached Australia by boat now be sent to the offshore processing camps that had been re-opened under Julia Gillard: no one sent to one of these camps would ever be settled in Australia.
Rudd made this pledge for purely political reasons. As Labor was not yet ready to embrace the Coalition's turnback policy, he thought he needed some measure that would blunt the edge of Tony Abbott's attack on Labor for its asylum seeker policy failure.
Rudd's additional deterrent measure did not help Labor's cause. It did, however, mean that when the new government came to power, Abbott predictably and painlessly added Rudd's initiative – no settlement, ever, in Australia of asylum seekers sent to Nauru or Manus Island – to the two successful deterrent measures introduced by Howard: offshore processing and turnback.
It is the bipartisan embrace of the Rudd initiative that is responsible for the present plight of the people on Nauru and Manus Island.
As the experience of the Howard government should have shown, the element Rudd added to Australia's asylum seeker deterrent policy was entirely unnecessary. People smugglers need a product to sell. Under Howard the threat of turnback and, if that failed, transfer to an offshore processing camp, killed the market stone dead. It would almost certainly do so again. Who, after all, would be willing to spend several thousand dollars when the overwhelming most likely prospect is interception by the Australian navy and return to point of departure or, in the unlikely event of naval failure or political difficulty, a prolonged period of detention in an offshore processing camp?
The current cruelty being inflicted on the asylum seekers languishing on Nauru and Manus Island will not be overcome while the two mindsets that at present dominate the national discussion of asylum seekers persist.
Supporters of asylum seekers hope that with inspirational political leadership, or a national moral awakening, Australia will abandon the policies of offshore processing and turnback, and that somehow an alternative policy will be discovered that will prevent asylum seeker boats setting out for Australia.
Supporters of current policy are convinced that if Canberra blinks and the slightest softening of the three-pronged border protection policy occurs, the people smugglers will be back in business.
Both these mindsets are mistaken. It is clear that for the foreseeable future no Australian government will return to the kind of policies that saw the arrival of 50,000 asylum seekers during the Rudd and Gillard years.
Equally, the belief that the asylum seeker boats will return if Canberra softens any element of present policy flies in the face both of historical evidence and of reason.
But while these mindsets dominate our asylum seeker debate, the lives of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island will continue to be slowly destroyed.
To save the 1500, compromise between the supporters of the asylum seekers and the supporters of current policy is now desperately needed. In practical terms, this will involve both gradual re-settlement in Australia of those now on Nauru and Manus Island, and the retention of turnback and the mothballing rather than the closing of the offshore processing centres.
In ideological terms it will involve something even more difficult to imagine: a rhetorical truce between the entrenched camps of Australia's bitter, 15-year-old asylum seeker culture war.
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at La Trobe University.
Image: Andrew Meares