THE big surprise of the blueprint crafted by Julia Gillard's expert panel is that it is even tougher, in key respects, than the plan Tony Abbott was prepared to back just six weeks ago — and just as tough as John Howard's Pacific Solution.
The potentially fatal flaw is the question neither the panel nor the Prime Minister could answer yesterday: how long can asylum seekers who are sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island expect to languish? Two years? Four years? Five years? More?
The aim is laudable and utterly sincere: to discourage people from risking their lives on leaky boats and, for the first time, to build a regional protection framework that offers "durable solutions" to those who flee persecution in their homelands.
But the strategy is high risk because a range of "unambiguously clear" disincentives to get on boats are intended to operate almost immediately — while the incentives for a better, fairer regional structure for protection will have to evolve over time.
This invites the question: will politicians deliver all of the incentives for people to wait in transit countries if the disincentives significantly slow the boats and solve the political problem? Moreover, will they soften the hard edges if the "circuit breaker" does its job?
Those disincentives include almost all the big sticks proposed by both sides of politics, albeit with qualifications — from the Malaysian people swap and Nauru, and Manus, to curbs on family reunion and even turning back the boats.
The one that left many in the refugee sector gobsmacked was the edict that those sent to Nauru and Manus and found to be refugees would be resettled, in Angus Houston's words, "not in advance of, but at the same time as would have been the case had those claims been processed through established regional mechanisms".
Problem is, those "mechanisms" aren't yet in place. Certainly, there is no accepted waiting time for the 80,000-plus asylum seekers in Malaysia, or the significant numbers in Thailand and Indonesia.
Even Abbott, whose "stop-the-boats" mantra is focused solely punishing those who get on boats, was prepared to commit to processing within 12 months on Nauru.
There is an important difference between the original Pacific Solution and what the expert panel proposes, aside from the increased refugee intake. There will be better monitoring of mental health, more scope for reviews, more access by NGOs and better mechanisms for transferring those who are struggling to the mainland.
But whether these safeguards are sufficient to satisfy Australia's obligations under international law is open to debate.
Clearly, this was a bruising task for the panel, especially Paris Aristotle, who has committed his working life to helping survivors of trauma and torture. Clearly, too, the 604 lives lost since October 2009 — and reports of another 67 missing — have shaped its thinking.
Aristotle summed up the balancing act when he said his organisation was still treating those who were psychologically damaged by their time on Nauru in the Howard years — but was also treating those deeply traumatised after losing their entire families at sea.
Houston, for his part, said they had been "realistic not idealistic".
I don't doubt his sincerity, but time will tell if he is right.