Last week was not a good one for Australian attempts to establish a pan-Asia framework for assessing asylum applications.

At a conference in Bali, prime minister Julia Gillard’s plan for a processing centre on Timor-Leste failed to gain traction.

A "regional co-operation framework" with a "centre or centres" was cited as an aspiration. Nothing, though, was fixed.

Promises of a centre somewhere, one day, do not convey the urgency the Australian government claims it has. Politically in Australia, the consensus is that quick action is needed.

Boats full of asylum seekers keep arriving. A fortnight ago, the detention centres on Christmas Island burned after riots over application delays and overcrowding hundreds of detainees temporarily roamed loose.

Opposition parties used the images to claim policy towards asylum seekers was broken. When I saw the images, I was reminded of the five days I spent on Christmas Island in the wake of the sinking of a boat, just off it, which killed around 50 in December last year.

In fact, "sinking" is too bland a term to describe what happened to that vessel and its passengers. After the boat’s engines failed it was pushed towards razor-sharp cliffs then pummeled against them by five metre waves.

Once the boat was smashed, the passengers were hammered direct – some straight against the rocks, others caught between what remained of their boat and the cliffs.

They were pounded by waves and planks on one side, their bodies shredded by rocks on the other.

One Christmas Island local – long deep scratches down his legs where he’d been ripped while still on land – told me he was second man on a rope trying to haul up survivors: "The closest we got to saving anyone was seeing a man’s face come up just over the lip of the cliff. Then another massive wave came in and swept him away".

And yet, even with such tragedy I thought then, and still think now, that much of the rhetoric around asylum policy in Australia is misguided.

Disregard to human life

Take something that everyone seems to agree on - that those who organise such voyages are "evil".

This is what Julia Gillard said in the wake of the disaster: "The people smugglers who ply this evil trade, who seek to profit on human misery with callous disregard to human life ... are responsible" she said, "The government, of course, is responding to this evil trade".

But wait a moment. Like all industries that turn a profit – and people-smuggling by boat to Christmas Island is a growing one – business sustainability depends on a ready supply of customers.

Representatives from the department of immigration and from charities on Christmas Island were all quick to tell me how potential customers were misled: how the marketing for these voyages was false: passengers "cruise" to Australia on sophisticated vessels, goes the pitch, (not lurch across high seas in wooden buckets, liable to tip at any time).

Friendly Australian navy boats meet, then escort passengers to their new home (not line them up in rows and make them sit cross-legged on a barge), asylum applications are processed quickly – and always favourably – with customers ready to start their new lives Down Under in days (not wait months in cramped detention camps, in 30 degree heat, and 90 per cent humidity, deal with endless bureaucracy and agencies before facing the very real possibility of being flown, minus savings, from whence they’d come).

"Australia – a sophisticated land of dreams and we can get you there" ... for just $5,000, or $25,000, or $50,000. No one quite seems to agree on the going rate.

"Life savings" seems the established price. But who wouldn’t jump at that? If only customers knew the truth, is the mantra.

If only the evil smugglers were frank about their trade. But just consider for a moment if they were.

Here are some stats. For the financial year June 2009-June 2010, 118 boats made it to Christmas Island carrying a total of 5,592 people to shore alive. Two boats did sink killing 17.

Nevertheless, 99.7 per cent made it in one piece, just three in every thousand drowned.

For 2010 as a calendar year, including the December sinking, around 140 boats made it to shore carrying around 6,500. Even taking into account the 50 who died so horribly, around 99 per cent survived.

And what rewards for those who do. Over the last decade between 70 per cent and 97 per cent of those arriving by boat to Christmas Island have ultimately been assessed as valid refugees and been granted full protection visas – the first step to citizenship, and all the benefits of a new life in Australia that that brings.

Let's assume for a minute that people smugglers are unbelievably honest salesmen, and see whether their honest pitch would persuade: "Give us all your money and we will almost certainly deliver you safely – though perhaps not comfortably - to Australia.

Asylum politics

There, after what will be – we admit – a rough few months in a place akin to a prison, you'll very likely be given a pass to spend the rest of your lives living and working in one of the most pleasant countries on Earth.

No guarantees, and like all purchases it might not be for everyone ... but what do you say?"

Imagine you went to your (expensive) doctor with a major complaint and he said he could give you an operation.

It won't be pleasant, but it cures between 70 and 97 per cent of those that have it, and the worse your existing condition, the better your odds.

However, in a very small proportion of cases - less than 1 per cent - the operation kills. You'd probably take your chances.
If the condition was bad enough, you certainly would. And you wouldn’t label the doctor "evil" for trying.

It speaks volumes that it's thought many who've been granted asylum and now live and work in Australia are sending money back to relatives at home to pay for them to make the same voyage.

They know the deal: they've lived the honest pitch, yet still encourage others to do the same.

If an evil trade is one where the perpetrators negligently – willfully – put people in danger in pursuit of profit then perhaps people-smuggling is one.

But if an evil trade is one which promises one thing and then delivers something completely different, and where the "customers" would never sign up if they knew the evil truth, then I'm not sure people-smuggling counts.

A nasty trade, certainly, a risky one, no doubt. But evil? Most customers walk away having had the core service as promised.

In fact, what's arguably "evil" is getting asylum cases wrong and denying asylum to those that genuinely need it.

There is evidence that those who are ultimately refused asylum in Australia end up being murdered once they've been sent home.

In that sense, what matters far more than where claims are assessed is how they are: the rhetoric shouldn't concentrate on the place of the decision, but on the decision itself.

It never will of course. That, after all, is politics.