Rawdon Dalrymple is a former Australian ambassador to Israel, Indonesia, the US and Japan.

The Expert Panel's report on 'asylum seeker' policy was prepared in less than seven weeks, a remarkable achievement to produce a succinct but comprehensive and compelling document covering all aspects of the issue.

Malcolm Fraser says the report is 'racist', Nick Riemer of the Refugee Action Coalition says it is 'a return to the cruelty and inhumanity of the policies of the past', the human rights lawyer David Manne says it would only sweep 'the dangers from our doorstep to dangers elsewhere' and Graham Thom of Amnesty International says its recommendations are tantamount to 'a complete outsourcing' of Australia's obligations.

The report examines in detail Australia's obligations under the several international agreements and related provisions to which we have adhered and it seems clear that its recommendations are in compliance with all of those. The outrage expressed by those who want Australia to facilitate the entry of increasing numbers of irregular entrants is essentially on moral grounds.

The Houston Report does not specifically address Australia's moral obligations, and that was prudent for a committee charged with looking at the more immediate practical issue of dealing with a surge in the number of irregular entrants by sea and the widening demands on our rescue capacities. But the moral issue will not go away. It will continue to divide the Australian community and political activists. It is therefore worth a brief attempt to describe its dimensions.

Firstly, it is relevant to note that there has been, over a decade or so, a successful move by the advocates of a very liberal policy to change the nomenclature used to describe people, especially from Afghanistan and Iraq, who sign on with 'people smugglers', mostly in Indonesia, to enter Australia by irregular (or illegal) means.

These were formerly referred to as 'boat people'. Now they are routinely labeled 'asylum seekers' even when there is no evidence they are seeking asylum from persecution or other danger. Even the Houston Report itself refers to 'the return of failed asylum seekers who do not need international protection', which presumably means they do not need asylum. This nomenclature immediately loads the moral calculus.

Once, there was publicity given to the fact that many of those attempting irregular entry by boat arrived without identification papers, having destroyed them to mount a stronger and unverifiable claim that they had fled persecution. Now it is no longer reported that this practice remains common if not routine. Once it was common for it to be stated that many were 'economic refugees', but that description seems to have disappeared. Is that because it is no longer valid or because no one thinks any longer that it matters?

This taking over of the language helps the advocacy lobby make it appear shameful to question their assertions about the moral claims irregular entrants make upon us.

But the issue, including the moral dimension, should be examined in a less prejudicial way. Only the most perfervid advocates would argue that Australia has an unlimited moral responsibility to rescue at sea and admit to residence in this country anyone who seeks to come here. But we have slid into not just meeting boats with two hundred on board which have sailed a short distance from Indonesian coastal towns and reached Australia's waters or zone of responsibility. We are scouring the seas to pick up boats that are still in Indonesian waters and, with Indonesian permission, answering distress calls from boats that have sailed only a short distance and then addressed a distress call to Australian search and rescue monitors.

That some are deliberately either sabotaging the boats while close to Indonesian land or setting out knowing that their transport is unsafe suggests that Australian responsibility for all 'asylum seekers' is being exploited.

Why should we be thought to have a moral responsibility for anyone who takes an irregular boat journey to reach Australia? In practice none of us would feel comfortable standing by while people drowned trying to get here. But again, there have to be limits on our responsibility as there are on our capacity.

The Indonesian authority responsible for search and rescue of these boats in Indonesian waters has said it would like Australia to provide them with an ocean-going ship and a helicopter. We have previously provided patrol boats to Indonesia but we are now using our own overworked Armidale class boats to answer distress calls in their waters. We are at or near the limit of our present capacity to save any irregular entry vessels that send distress calls from as far west as just off Java.

We are stretching beyond the limit our moral responsibility and it is therefore timely that the Expert Panel has reinstated measures which should provide disincentives for people from far beyond our region to attempt to gain residence of this country by irregular means.

Photo by Flickr user Jonas Witt.