Is anyone really surprised?
Last Friday’s announcement by Prime Minister Redux Rudd, that as of now, all illegal boat arrivals would be sent to Papua New Guinea and, if assessed as genuine refugees, would be permanently resettled there, is an exercise as patently hollow as it is hopelessly flawed and contemptuous of the citizens he presumes to rule.
It’s true: the illegal people smuggling trade to Australia has now reached a level where, to do nothing, to merely continue to defend the existing policies of the Rudd/Gillard government, was no longer an option. From the negligible 50-odd arrivals per year under the Howard government’s “Pacific Solution” policy of temporary protection visas and mandatory detention offshore on Nauru, the arrivals have now snowballed to over one hundred per day.
It’s also true that the alarm felt by many ordinary Australians, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, at the very real and increasing level of violence directly attributable to gangs of young, male recent arrivals, could no longer be covered up by a politically correct media, or dismissed as simple racism by the public, or those tasked to clean up the mess. All of which can be the only explanation for our Dear Leader’s sudden epiphany:
Essentially, Rudd is now bribing the PNG government to take the asylum seeker problem off our hands. I’ll explain exactly how cynical and hypocritical this move actually is, and why it cannot possibly work, shortly. But to put it in context, especially for those of you unfamiliar with the country, a potted history first.
The modern Independent State of Papua New Guinea covers the eastern half of the island of New Guinea (the western half forming two Indonesian provinces collectively known as Irian Jaya, or West Irian), plus numerous island possessions in the Torres Strait and the Solomon, Bismarck and Coral Seas, of which more anon. It has a particularly complicated, and occasionally comical, political history. The south-east quarter of the island was first formally colonized in 1884, by Britain, as British New Guinea. Only, the colony of Queensland, in the person of shady Premier Sir Thomas McIlwraith, had already gone ahead and done so the year before on his own authority—in the name of Her Majesty, of course. The British government, dismissive of the impertinence of the Antipodean colonials and presumably invoking the principle of delegata potestas non potest delegari, repudiated McIlwraith’s actions (near-instantaneous communications with London having been established only eleven years previously), but having received financial guarantees from Down Under, did so themselves several months later anyway.
The north-east corner of the island, meanwhile, was colonized in the same year by Germany as Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, being part of their wider South Pacific colony of the same name (Deutsch-Neuguinea), to which were added several island possessions bought from Spain in 1899. PNG’s highest mountain still bears the old spikehead’s name. The western half, having been occupied by the Dutch for centuries, was formally colonized as (you guessed it) Nederlands-Nieuw-Guinea, prior to annexation by Indonesia in 1962.
In 1905, to reduce confusion, the south-eastern possession was re-named the Territory of Papua and control formally passed to the newly-formed Commonwealth Dominion of Australia. In 1914, Australian troops attacked and defeated the small German military detachment, taking over German New Guinea (whose small European population consisted principally of copra plantation owners, traders and Christian missionaries) for the duration of the war. In 1919 this was formalized when Australia was granted a League of Nations Mandate over the territory, which it merged as the territory of Papua and New Guinea. For legal purposes, however, they remained as separate jurisdictions, both administered out of Brisbane. Those of you educated in the British Empire prior to 1975 may remember old classroom maps of the area looking something like this:
In 1942, following the fall of Singapore, the Imperial Japanese Army attacked Rabaul and Buna, prior to a southerly advance towards Port Moresby, preparatory to a planned invasion of the Northern Australian mainland. They were repelled by Australian forces in the Kokoda Track Campaign of 1942-3, in which native recruits played invaluable rôles as scouts, spies and porters; the tying-up and loss of Japanese troops in land battles of this period was partly responsible for allowing the United States Navy to re-group following the Battle of the Coral Sea and continue its northerly assault upon Yamamoto’s naval forces northwards to the Philippines. New Guinea’s land-based military engagements thus played a pivotal part in the turn of fortunes in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.
In 1949, the Chifley government passed the Papua and New Guinea Act, providing a structure for economic development of the combined territory and paving the way for self-rule. The House of Assembly was established in 1963, and independence formally granted on 16th September, 1975. Secessionists on Bougainville Island (geographically and culturally closer to the Solomon Islands than PNG), fearful of being ruled from Port Moresby, wasted no time in declaring independence, sparking an on-again-off-again civil war that lasted twenty years and claimed an estimated 20,000 lives, before Australia and New Zealand were compelled to provide logistical support, and afterwards a so-called “peace monitoring group”, to put a stop to it.
Today, PNG’s seven-million-odd population is a Babylonian mix of indigenous Papuans from thousands of tribes, plus Europeans (many descended from the original colonists), Chinese, Polynesians and Melanesians. Many modern Papua New Guineans have mixed ancestry, as have former Prime Ministers Julius Chan and Bill Skate, as well as the incumbent.
Tok Pisin is the official national language of PNG (along with Standard English and Hiri Motu, which are less widely spoken). As the name suggests, it’s a pidgin, basically a version of English with stripped-down spelling, vocabulary, syntax and grammar, and a lot of local words thrown in. It enables inhabitants of the linguistically most diverse nation on earth (anthropologists estimate some 800 of the original 4,500 native languages are still extant) to communicate with one another, in peace and war. Listen to it for a while and you get the gist of it. Most people educated in Australia prior to 1975 have at least a passing familiarity with it, due to it being taught, formally or informally, or for no other reason that many teachers had worked there as employees of the Queensland Education Department. I’m not particularly fluent myself, but I know plenty of people who have spent large chunks of their careers there and are so. The thread’s title, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, translates loosely as the Ruddbot’s been bullshitting us yet again.
Which brings me back to last Friday’s announcement. From the official government press release, all illegal boat arrivals henceforward will be detained on Manus Island, a PNG possession about 300 kilometres off the mainland coast north-east from Wewak, and the largest member of the Admiralty Islands chain. Those who are found to be genuine refugees will be re-settled in PNG, with no hope of being offered residency in Australia. Rudd came to the bargaining table with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill with plenty of sweeteners, the implications of which are only slowly becoming apparent.
In a more than usually mixed message, typical of Rudd’s policy-on-the-run, it appears that Rudd has surrendered control of Australia’s $500 million annual aid budget (the bulk of all foreign aid received by PNG), to a man himself facing the polls, the legitimacy of his incumbency in serious question, and in desperate need of an electoral war chest. From this article:
The Coalition has also attacked Mr Rudd for telling the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, that he could now control how PNG’s foreign aid budget was spent.
In a press conference on Monday, Mr O’Neill boasted that after striking his deal with Mr Rudd, the PNG government would “now set all the priorities under which Australian aid program will now be directed towards”.
“We will set the priorities on what sort of projects it will go to, where our priorities are, and where we need those projects most,” Mr O’Neill said. This deal would apply to the “entire” aid budget, he said.
A spokesman for Mr Rudd said that Australia retained “normal control over the spending of its aid money in Papua New Guinea” but he suggested some control had been surrendered in the negotiations.
The list of reasons why this half-baked scheme cannot possibly work is longer than my own knowledge of the country; many commentators have articulated them at length (read the comments below this story for a feel of them), but here are a few that become obvious after even the most cursory examination:
Legality. It appears that, rather than being taken directly from waters off the Javanese coast (the usual intercept point for illegal people-smuggler boats for the Royal Australian Navy), to Manus Island, the immigrants will first be taken for processing, health checks and the like, to Australian territory. This provides the perfect loophole for human rights and refugee advocates in Australia, who have indicated they will use any means at their disposal, including appeals to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to keep them right here. This could potentially tie up the transfer of an individual detainee for years – a bonanza for lawyers.
This is even before the expected High Court challenge to the constitutionality of the move, on the grounds that it violates Australia’s international treaty obligations, specifically the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which I discussed back here.
Cost. Rudd’s financial commitment to O’Neill is uncapped in size and open-ended in duration. Arrivals dealt with in Australia, using the most cost-efficient means sought in open tender currently cost us billions of dollars per year, and is rising at an alarming rate. How much more is the PNG government going to slug us to do the same job?
Unenforceability. Once these asylum seekers have been re-settled on the PNG mainland, with local passports, what’s to stop them making the further trip southwards to Australia? Will the PNG government try to stop them? Having already received their payola, they have every reason not to, and be rid of them. The Torres Strait, which separates Australia from PNG, is dotted with tiny islands; there are only a couple of channels fit for navigation by any vessel larger than a shallow-draught fishing trawler, pilotage is mandatory, and elsewhere can be navigated only by motorized dinghy or outrigger canoe. As Queensland Premier Campbell Newman pointed out immediately following Rudd’s announcement, the sea distance between PNG and Australian territorial landfall is only four kilometres, much of which can even be waded at low tide! So what’s to stop an enterprising band of PNG locals from setting up their own people smuggling business to Cape York at the northern tip of Queensland, where the whole merry-go-round will start all over again? But by then, of course, the election, and all Rudd’s guarantees, having served their purpose, will be but a distant memory.
Cultural incompatibility. The majority of the illegal arrivals whom Rudd now proposes to re-settle in PNG are middle-class, highly-educated professionals from the cities of Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Where’s a peasant going to come up with thousands of U.S. dollars to pay a people smuggler? A resident photographer on Christmas Island has sent Michael Smith these pictures of boat arrivals from Iran, the women with boutique hairstyles (those not covered by head scarves anyway), laptop computers, designer clothing and luggage, including Louis Vuitton handbags, the men looking like they spend at least five days a week working out in the gym. Rudd thinks he’s putting up a deterrent by proposing to re-settle them in one of the poorest nations in the region, with a per capita GDP of just US$2800 and an (official) adult literacy rate of about 50%. A nation whose religion is a mixture of Christianity and various forms of black magic, where the very few resident Muslims keep their faith very much to themselves, and where language fluency runs mainly to very narrowly-dispersed tribal dialects, plus the local lingua franca, and have little or no desire to accommodate newcomers.
On the subject of Tok Pisin, you can hear a good sample of the spoken language (actually, a continuum between Tok Pisin and Standard English) in the EMTV news report below, including some very good questions being raised; questions which any self-respecting people would naturally ask, before agreeing to accept huge numbers of new citizens from another culture, and questions Australians have long been forbidden to ask themselves out loud:
Cannibalism, which it is often claimed has been eradicated from PNG, still exists in remote parts of the highlands, where it is said to persist as part of ritualistic celebrations arising from clan warfare (WARNING: do not google “cannibalism in PNG” unless you are prepared for some truly horrific imagery). Their term for human beings cooked and eaten as meat is “tall pig” (kukim long pik), and I do wonder how that bit of information might go down among the new New Guineans. HIV/AIDS is also prevalent; AusAID estimates at least 2% of the population is now HIV-positive (up from 1.5% in 2007), a figure that is the highest in the region and continues to rise at an alarming rate. Cholera is regarded as endemic, even by the Australian government’s own travel advisory service. It’s impossible to believe Rudd and whoever is advising him have actually thought this through.
Unpreparedness. Using Manus Island as a detention centre for illegal boat arrivals in Australia has one other tiny little problem: There are currently only 300 beds available, 120 or so of which are currently filled. Taking the rate of arrivals since Rudd’s announcement, Manus’ carrying capacity should be reached by, uhh…
No problem, smiles Immigration Minister Tony Burke. We’ll just send over tents! Oh, really, Minister? With tens of thousands of arrivals per year, do you really want pictures like this one, of a refugee camp in Africa, beamed around the world as evidence of your humanitarian asylum seeker policy?
Even the facilities currently on Manus are woefully inadequate, and a national disgrace; this story, aired on SBS television the other night, detailing rampant disease and sexual assault occurring among detainees, has sparked outrage, and has led to Manus being branded as Australia’s own “Devil’s Island”. Burke assures us that new facilities to accommodate up to 3,000 detainees have been ordered (and I’ll have more to say about that in a second), to be ready sometime next year. Or maybe the year after. But what is three thousand, next to ten times that number which have arrived in Australia in just the past twelve months? Half-baked, slapdash, back-of-an-envelope, thought-bubble: choose your own descriptor: a mess by any name.
Corruption. Transparency International ranks Papua New Guinea as one of the most corrupt nations on the planet; 37% of PNG survey respondents report having paid a bribe to the police, and a staggering 20% to the judiciary. The new arrivals have already paid thousands in bribes to people smugglers, and so will think nothing of throwing a few kina the way of some local judge, bureaucrat or cop to look the other way, while they get on making their way to their real destination—Australia. And given the corruption of petty officials, who can guess in whose pockets large chunks of Australia’s half-billion-dollar annual aid budget will end up courtesy of senior government officials, now that O’Neill has been gifted by Rudd this vast, personal slush fund?
The corruption on the PNG side, tawdry and venal as it is, isn’t even the worst of it, by a long way. Michael Smith has done an excellent bit of investigative journalism here and here, in reporting on the highly unusual circumstances surrounding the awarding of the tender for construction of the new expanded facilities on Manus to industrial infrastructure provider Decmil, and the market trading in Decmil shares in the days prior to the public announcement of the winning tenderer. It has the makings of possibly one of the worst insider-trading scandals in Australian securities history. I’m sure Michael will have more on this as it develops.
Hypocrisy. Rudd is clearly banking on the rest of us having an extremely short memory. As Opposition Leader, he continually lambasted the inhumanity of Howard’s Pacific Solution, while piously asserting the Christian underpinnings of his own approach, based upon the teachings of his hero, WW2-era German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer. In a 2006 essay in The Monthly, he wrote:
Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. That is why the government’s proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches. We should never forget that the reason we have a UN convention on the protection of refugees is in large part because of the horror of the Holocaust, when the West (including Australia) turned its back on the Jewish people of Germany and the other occupied countries of Europe who sought asylum during the ’30s.
See? Calling into question Rudd’s asylum seeker policy makes you a…
So how come now, he’s advocating a solution far harsher than anything Howard dared imagine? What does that make Rudd? Hard to believe it’s the same Kevin Rudd who last week wrote:
Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia.
Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north.
Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas.
We are sick of watching our servicemen and women risking their lives in rescues in dangerous conditions on the high seas.
Regional processing arrangements in Papua New Guinea will be significantly expanded and people will be sent to Manus Island as soon as health checks are complete and appropriate accommodation is identified.
As I write this, today’s papers—even the Labor-friendly Fairfax Media—are reporting that the PNG solution is in tatters. Having announced it, so recently and with such fanfare and high-handedness, the government cannot back away from it now, before the election—which, one assumes, can no longer be held any time soon, lest the backlash hit Labor; late September at the earliest, most commentators are agreed, and possibly as late as 30 November, the last possible date permitted by the Constitution—which would leave Rudd accused of “being dragged kicking and screaming to the polls”. We’ll see.
Or maybe, the backdown is starting already—only six days after the policy was announced! SBS is reporting this morning that 70 asylum seekers already on Manus will be returned to Australia, to make way for more, fresh arrivals. Is that how the back-down will operate—as a refugee shell game? Moral high ground, my arse.
Four more months of this make-it-up-as-we-go-along government—let alone three more years—our country does not need. Or want. Call the election today.