On 3 February 2016, Plaintiff M68 was decided by the High Court in the government’s favour. So here was the great moral challenge: should women, children and Australian-born infants be sent to Nauru where, on all the evidence, the conditions constitute child abuse. PM Malcolm Turnbull responded with fine rhetoric. In a doorstop interview on 8 February he said:

“All of us are anxious, are anguished at the plight of children in detention. … The one thing we know we must do is manage our border protection policies, yes, with compassion, yes, with humanity, yes with a deep concern about children.

But, if we make changes that have the consequence of giving the people smugglers a marketing opportunity – which they will take – they are very dangerous and agile criminals, and they use modern social media with an efficiency that is remarkable.

We have to be very careful, anything we do which gives them a marketing opportunity, they will use, and they will use it to get more vulnerable people on boats and more children and their parents will die by drowning at sea.

So, we have stopped the boats, and we are managing the caseload that we inherited from the Labor Party, but we have to do so – yes, with compassion, yes, yes with a passionate concern for those children. We are giving their parents every incentive to return to their country of origin, to go to settle in another country, because we know that if we give those people smugglers any marketing opportunity, let me tell you, they will use it. They will use it, and there will be more deaths at sea and more children put at risk….”

Now it is easy to be distracted by the silvered delivery, and the polished rhetoric. And the political reality is that Turnbull has inherited the grim logic of 15 years of demonising boat people as “illegal”. And he has a party room which is fairly hostile to him.

But the worrying thing that underlies his seductive pretence at compassion is that he is prepared to send children to face abuse if that will reduce the possibility of people trying to escape persecution and reach safety in Australia. Of course, Turnbull’s position (which is currently shared by the Labor Party) amounts to this: We are so worried about you drowning, we will punish you if you don’t drown. That will persuade others to stay at home and face persecution.” In short, Australia is now being candid about something that was always implicit in its mandatory detention and offshore processing policies: the idea of coming to Australia must be made to look worse than the prospect of facing the Taliban or ISIL.

In addition, Turnbull apparently wants people to return to the persecution they have escaped (“We are giving their parents every incentive to return to their country of origin”). And he said we were giving people an incentive “to go to settle in another country”. In 2013 New Zealand had offered to resettle 300 refugees as part of a two-year deal with Australia. But in January 2016 New Zealand’s Immigration Minister said Australia has not taken up the offer and the resettlement places had instead been given to Syrian refugees.

Former PM Tony Abbott had scrapped the plan, saying the message to people smugglers had to be “crystal clear”.

Turnbull, Abbott and Labor leader Bill Shorten all use the same logic: treat boat people harshly, to save them from unscrupulous people smugglers and the perils of the sea.

There are two possibilities: either they are sincere in what they say, or they are lying.

If they are sincere, then they betray an unhappy lack of logic and morality. Boat people do not commit any offence by arriving, without an invitation, to seek asylum. Calling them “illegal” is simply false. They risk their lives at sea in order to escape something worse: over the past 15 years, about 90% of boat people have proved to be genuine refugees. After all, you don’t risk your life at sea as a casual lifestyle choice.

And if a person is desperate to avoid persecution at home, and is aware that they would face years of persecution at Australia’s hands if they try to come here, experience tells us that they will try to escape to some other place.

There is nothing surprising in the idea that people who genuinely fear persecution will run for their lives. It’s what people do, if they can. Whether they head to Australia, or to Europe, or somewhere else matters much less to them than getting away from the fear of persecution.

The whole world was horrified by images of the corpse of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi after his family had fled across the Mediterranean. But those images demonstrated something we already knew: refugees perish in their attempt to find safety. If they die at the hands of their persecutors, or in the Mediterranean, or in a boat on the way to Australia makes no difference to them: they are still dead. The main difference is in us: our national conscience (such as it is) is not troubled by seeing the broken boats, the broken corpses.

And in order to ease our conscience, we deliberately treat survivors cruelly, as a warning to those who might look to us for kindness.

But on top of this complete lack of logic, there is a profound moral failing. Australia’s policy on boat people, as articulated by Turnbull on 8 February, shows that we are willing to use individual, frightened human beings as instruments to help us achieve policy objectives. We are willing to sacrifice a few foreigners in order to produce a political outcome. That approach exists at the frontier where utilitarian thinking meets totalitarianism.