Nauru and Manus Island, pictured, have served the Coalition well. Photo: SuppliedNauru and Manus Island have served the Coalition well, right up to the election, but there are ominous signs that the music may stop leaving us without a seat. The Australian government may need a new policy. It’s not a matter entirely within its control.
In Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced – after a meeting with our Immigration Minister Peter Dutton – that the Australian concentration camp on Manus Island would close. This seemed a surprise to Dutton when he was asked about the plan and the timetable and, for a time, he seemed to imply that this was PNG’s problem, since the men in open-gate durance vile would not be coming to Australia.
That’s the problem with PNG politicians. One can rent the government – as Kevin Rudd did in 2013 – but one can never quite buy them. O’Neill has his own political problems, not least a forthcoming election, and being held to the letter of an old deal is hardly his first priority. Anyway circumstances have changed since his Supreme Court, through our very own Terry Higgins, ruled the arrangements unconstitutional.
Meanwhile the situation on Nauru is, as one commentator put it recently, only a Four Corners report away from being politically or diplomatically unsustainable. An investigation by The Guardian has put out further evidences of great unhappiness at the camp. It is not so much that it is damning (though it is), but it is yet further confirmation that nothing in that hellhole improves.
The Guardian scoop was greeted with the usual sets of official half-denials, bluster, prevarication, obfuscation, claims of exaggeration and arguments that it is an “old story”. There were innuendos of secret and hidden agendas on the part of whistleblowers and the left-Liberal media, especially the ABC. News Ltd did not notice the story, or if it did, think it worthy of even the most minor attention, no doubt helping to prove to Dutton that the non-News Ltd Media are still engaged in jihad against him.
The essential story does not turn on fresh information, as such. But what there is confirms what previous reports, whether from independent outsiders, human rights’ commissions, Amnesty and the UN, and a Senate committee have previously shown – that the system is driving almost everyone there towards suicide, depression and self-harm.
These reports continually suggest indifference on the part of the department and the contractors who carry out the government’s dirty work. The usual pattern is denial, “clarification” with very self-interested (and unconvincing) efforts to minimise or dispute the facts, intimidation of workers and assignment of blame or responsibility to the Nauran government.
But as at least Sam Dastyari, of the Labor Party, seems to have twigged, the Australian public is not that stupid. A clear majority agree that boat people will be stopped only if they are to be denied access to Australia, even if found (as they mostly are) to be genuine refugees. Ministers from the prime minister down continually reiterate it, invariably in a political context during that Labor in power would lack the guts to carry the policy through..
But there is evidence that the public no longer sees everything done with boat people as part of a seamless whole. The policies fit into two categories. One is about boat interception and resettlement, whether on Manus or Nauru. It is shrouded in secrecy and want of accountability, but apparently quite successful.
Then there’s the policy and the practice of effectively punishing the boat people – children and women as much as men – by making their lives as miserable as possible. This happens in places that are inaccessible to outsiders, particularly to those who might alert the public to the horrible things being done in our nation’s name.
More members of the public are now wondering whether the cruelty, isolation and neglect is necessary. Given the fabulous sums of money involved in detaining people on these islands, might it not be possible to give people some comfort, some dignity and some respect for the sufferings from which they have fled, or the sufferings they have endured since running into Australia’s border forces?
Some in government and the bureaucracy think that any relaxation of the regime runs the risk of seeming weak in the face of resistance, or failing to “send a message” to potential boat people. After all, the department invests millions in trying to persuade potential asylum seekers that they will ruin all of their chances if they try to come by boat, since then they will never be allowed to settle in Australia.
There is no doubt that the wider world, and probably, potential boat people, know how Australia and its client governments are treating boat people. From the wider world it is coming back to us, continually, in the form of bad international press, scarcely disguised disdain and difficult relations with countries with whom we would like to be good friends, such as Indonesia. That Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull now “owns” the problem with almost the same enthusiasm as his predecessor is a significant barrier to his ever being counted any sort of international statesman.
Effective, and some think, deliberate institutional abuse of detainees is not of itself a moral justification for such abuse, even on some claim of being cruel to be kind. And in any event, for the desperate – the potential boat people – the important message they must receive is not that they will be punished (in contravention of international law) for taking a boat, but that doing so will be counterproductive, since it will serve to deny them refuge in Australia.
Distance and bluster and blackguarding of “advocates” may serve to keep the issues at bay. But increasingly a public that can bear to know about our maltreatment intellectually, as long as it is not shoved in their face, are being forced to confront ample evidence of what is happening. It’s a bit like the Northern Territory juvenile justice system story. There was never a secret that life is tough in the NT system, that many of the guards are as brutalised as those in their custody, and that politicians (and police, and the public) turn a blind eye to a punitive regime as long as they do not officially know (or can claim they did not notice). Even sequences of reports, inquiries, criticisms and attempts to explain what is going on may not cause great ripples, especially if the reports are sober, fair-minded, somewhat academic in tone, and confined to paper, which apparently politicians do not much read much these days.
That’s the power of television. The Four Corners report showed actual physical abuse on tape. Right in your face. It excited an emotional reaction as much as an intellectual one. No effort to pretend that the problems of the system are exaggerated, or that the timing of the report was “political” – with an intention to damage the Country Liberal Party – can account for the shock or the need to be seen to be doing something. At least until everyone has forgotten when, one can be sure, the same old regime will be back, whether under a re-elected CLP government or, more likely, under a “reforming” Labor government that will not have the guts to take on prison officer unions.
With Manus and Nauru, Labor can almost certainly afford to put on its concerned face and pretend to be shocked and surprised. Still, of course, 100 per cent on turn-backs, but asking aloud what the warrant has been for the mental and physical collapse of so many asylum seekers.
Labor’s concern will, of course, be laden with hypocrisy and not only because Labor set up the system, with conscious intimations of cruelty to come. It has always known exactly what has been going on. A substantial minority of the party openly hates the policy, but none have had the guts to repudiate it because of the fear of being wedged by the coalition.
It has been, as ever, expediency over principle. But that it is Dastyari who is taking the opportunity to divide the boat-people policies is hardly insignificant. He’s expediency and opportunism personified. But he does read (and have access to) polling data.
In any event, Dutton seemed to be more going through the motions on Nauru. His department has been more than usually inept. No one can predict when it all blows up in the government’s face, but the sense that it is coming is palpable. And, like moves to dismantle Manus, the timing and the explosive are not matters in the government’s control.
At least since the election (one might say at least since his election a year ago), Turnbull has seemed in a state of drift. He’s not been shaping events. Not even anticipating them. All too often it has been ad hoc responses to an immediate crisis. The government is not setting the agenda or making things happen. There could hardly be better witness to that than the bungled decision to have a royal commission into NT juvenile justice.
Has Turnbull a plan for the next stage of immigration policy? Has his minister, or the department? Assuming that, for the moment at least, government persists with the turn-back policies, what is the contingency planning for a loss of access to Manus, and/or the disaster in waiting with Nauru? If something happens will the government seem unprepared, unready and surprised?
Of one thing one can be fairly sure. If there is to be, instead, a “be tough but nice” policy, perhaps at other, if more accessible venue, there will be years of cleaning up the mess, not least of shattered lives.
Ten minutes after “be tough” policies are dropped, there will be no nostalgic fans, or people who will insist that they had to be what they were. The most enthusiastic executors of the old policies will be distancing themselves from what happened in the past and pretending that they were always concerned with the consequences.
The next almost certain thing is that many people, particularly younger ones, will not forget, or come quickly to think that it was a sad, perhaps bad, piece of now ancient history. This one will niggle on, like Aboriginal massacres. One can see a royal commission – as, say into stolen children or institutional child abuse – 20 years from now. Old public servants and retired defence officers being taken through the files and asked to explain and account. The children of the next generation will be asking their mothers and fathers, “Just what did you do in the war?” The history books and the academic, defence and bureaucratic literature will be scathing. They will probably note the public’s complicity, but it will seem no excuse.
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