It was the foundation stone of Julia Gillard's plan to stop, or at least substantially slow, the flow of boats arriving uninvited on our shores, and it had a certain simplicity and logic on its side. If asylum seekers could extract "no advantage" by paying people smugglers and risking their lives on leaky boats than if they stayed and had their refugee claims processed in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, it stood to reason that they'd stop coming.
But more than nine months after the Prime Minister embraced the principle, two things are apparent: no clear definition of "no advantage" has emerged and the policy has failed, spectacularly, to have an impact. If anything, it has been a boon for the smugglers.
The scorecard of failure emerged this week as public servants were grilled in Senate estimates committee hearings - and seemed better at defining what the principle was not, rather than what it was.
Almost 20,000 asylum seekers have arrived since the policy was embraced on August 13, and not one has been processed. Moreover, some 7256 have been released into the community on bridging visas without the right to work and with minimal support.
While the Coalition used the majority of its questions in the House of Representatives this week to suggest that inadequate security checks on those released pose a threat to the community, a very different reality was confronting those in the voluntary sector and those who have been released. Among them is a Hazara couple who were given bridging visas after spending four months in detention on Christmas Island and in Western Australia. After paying the rent and weekly instalments on their bond, they have just $30 a week each to cover all other expenses.
Sister Brigid Arthur, who has been helping find donated furniture and bedding for the couple, says the woman is wary of turning on the small heater in the flat or the stove for fear that they will not be able to pay the power bill.
Asked whether the couple are fretting about their future, Sister Brigid says: "We've hardly got into that. The focus is on survival day to day."
In estimates committee hearings, Department of Immigration secretary Martin Bowles insisted the approach - including sending some 800 asylum seekers to languish in centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island - was not about punishing them, or deterring others.
He also asserted that there had not been a freeze on processing the claims of the post-August 13 arrivals, despite that lack of action, and maintained that the "no advantage" principle applied to the issuing of visas, not the processing of claims - meaning those eventually found to be refugees could wait years before receiving visas.
Unconvinced were many in the refugee sector, including David Manne, the lawyer who has led a series of successful High Court challenges in this area.
"What is quite clear to us is that there is a very serious lack of understanding, and a collective confusion at the most fundamental level, by everyone involved in the sector, including government and non-government, about what the principle is and how it is being applied," he says.
Even without clarity, Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs told a parliamentary hearing the government's no-advantage policies and offshore processing had no legal context in international law.
"We urge the government to embark on assessing the validity or otherwise of the claims to refugee status," she said.
It is now almost 12 months since Gillard appointed the panel led by former defence chief Angus Houston to do what politicians had signally failed to do and come up with a policy that might avoid the growing number of tragedies at sea. The panel reported back in August and made 22 policy recommendations it said - when taken as a package - would reduce the number of arrivals.
"We recommend a policy approach that is hard-headed but not hard-hearted, that is realistic not idealistic, that is driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness," the expert panel said.
The government accepted, in principle, all of the recommendations and, so far, it has focused on reintroducing offshore processing, embracing the "no advantage" principle under which people's asylum claims will be processed "no faster than if they'd used regular options", and increasing Australia's overall humanitarian intake.
Frustration at the absence of a clear definition of "no advantage" prompted Victorian Labor MP Laura Smyth to move a resolution in caucus this week seeking one. This led to an undertaking from Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor to "flesh out" a definition in the coming weeks.
Back in August, Gillard offered this one: "Not only would you process asylum seekers on Nauru and PNG, but you would not give them a protection visa which would enable them to come to Australia until the passage of the same amount of time as if they had waited at a refugee resettlement place earlier in the pipeline". But the policy goals gave way to reality. Just three months later, then immigration minister Chris Bowen said that, given the sheer number of people arriving by boat, it was not possible to send everyone to Nauru or Manus Island. He announced that people who arrived after August 13 would be released into the community on a new form of bridging visa that forbids people from working and entitles them to a department-funded stipend of $217 a week (the equivalent to 89 per cent of the dole).
This week, department secretary Martin Bowles told the parliamentary hearing that releasing asylum seekers into the community cost just 20 per cent of the cost of keeping people in held detention. The changes will save the department millions.
But church groups and non-government organisations say they are being forced to care for those relinquished by the government.
Kon Karapanagiotidis, founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says his organisation's emergency housing budget, which it this year quadrupled, has run out two months before the end of the financial year.
The charity this week launched a winter appeal, desperate for food, winter clothing, blankets and nappies for its clients.
Karapanagiotidis says the situation is the worst he has seen in 12 years of running the ASRC.
"Our people are sitting here and going, 'What do I do today? Do I eat? Do I feed my child today? Do I fare evade? Do I buy a blanket, do I turn on the heater? The simple choices people are having to make around which of the basic things a human being has to do to survive.
"And when we see people actually going hungry, living in empty shithouses that are derelict or filthy or dangerous and are filled with nothing, I mean nothing, and everyone's having to turn people away - including us - it's killing us."
The opposition's focus this week was on linking asylum seekers on bridging visas with crime rates, even before it emerged that a convicted Egyptian terrorist who arrived by boat was mistakenly cleared by ASIO for release into community detention.
"I remind the Prime Minister that ASIO data confirms that people who arrive illegally by boat are more than 20 times more likely to receive a negative security clearance or qualified assessment after security checks than all other immigration cases ASIO refuse," Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop began one question on Thursday.
In fact, there have been 17 incidents of "possible criminal conduct" involving asylum seekers on bridging visas, the estimates hearing was told, including eight people who had been charged, and two who had been convicted. The number of people involved in possible criminal conduct, Bowles said, "is still quite low in terms of the broader community".
Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power says it is time for the government to change its approach. "It's been a monumental failure in terms of being a circuit breaker," he tells Fairfax Media.
"We've had volumes of arrivals bigger than anything we've had before and it desperately needs to be reassessed. You have to ask yourself, what is this policy achieving? It's not achieving any of the government's political objectives; it's not making any practical difference to what the government perceives to be the problem and it is crushing people in the process. I mean, why is this continuing? Why is the government not actually questioning the fact that the current policy parameters are clearly not working from anyone's perspective?"
While Julia Gillard maintains that the government has embraced all the recommendations of the expert panel - and blames the opposition's refusal to do the same for the record number of arrivals - it's clear that what has unfolded is at odds with what the panel sought.
Asked if the "no advantage" principle has been articulated and applied in the way the panel anticipated, panel member Paris Aristotle replies flatly: "No.
"It's not about processing. It's not even about entitlements, including work rights. The whole thing with the no advantage principle is: create a regional system, place people back into that system if they come by smugglers, and process them there," he says. "Now, you don't give them an advantage over other people being processed in the regional system you create, but you also don't disadvantage them."
Clearly, Aristotle is frustrated that more has not been done to create a regional system - either by allocating funds to build capacity in last month's budget or in direct leader-to-leader dialogue with Indonesia and Malaysia.
He is also dismayed that virtually none of the safeguards recommended for the processing centre on Manus Island have been implemented - and that children are among those subjected to arbitrary detention, inadequate accommodation, no processing and no oversight by an advisory group.
A bigger concern is that, the longer it takes to put an effective regional system in place, the bigger the pipeline becomes. "For every month we hold off doing something, you would add multiple months on the other end before you bring it under some sort of better managed system," he says.
"That will be the same, regardless of who is in government after September 14."
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