Australia, the steroid-soaked neighbourhood bully of the Pacific
So Nauru, the little island where Australia dumps people seeking asylum, has now forced out its magistrate and chief justice – gravely damaging the rule of law in the process.
The crisis provides a striking confirmation of Australia’s role in the region. It’s a steroid soaked neighbourhood bully drunk with power, casually coward punching the inhabitants of the Pacific.
The fanatical exclusion of refugees necessarily leads to an imitation of the regimes the persecuted are fleeing. If the Sri Lankan government scoffs at Tamil claims of oppression, so, too, does the Australian government – even as it detains Tamils in camps not so dissimilar from those they have fled.
At the same time, the anti-refugee obsession mandates closer Australian ties with authoritarian regimes. For example, to assist the Sri Lankan government in stopping Tamil boats, Tony Abbott offered military hardware to its military. He also undermined the international campaign against Sri Lankan human rights abuses by publicly announcing that, while his government deplores the use of torture, ”we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen“.
Equally, the Australian government’s relationship with Indonesia now centres on the boat issue, which means that Canberra consistently presses Jakarta (scarcely the most liberal regime at the best of times) to strengthen its coercive apparatus, pushing for it to impose stricter laws and harsher penalties for people smugglers, to allocate more resources for the police and the navy, and so on.
But Indonesia is, of course, a rising power, increasingly unwilling to be ordered around by its neighbour.
Elsewhere, matters are different. Australia may be a minor player on the world stage, but in relation to many Pacific states it’s a heavyweight – a regional superpower capable of imposing its will.
Earlier this month, Nauru signaled its intention to charge reporters an astonishing ,000 to apply for a visa, which then still might be refused. That would add significantly to the already substantial logistical difficulties facing Australian journalists reporting on the Nauru detention centre (my own application simply disappeared without response).
But, legally, Nauru remains an independent state, and so Scott Morrison could declare that ”the [visa] decision was made without reference to the Australian government by the Nauruan government.” Which is, of course, the point. Locating a detention centre on foreign soil isolates refugees from the public and from the press, while allowing the Australian government to shrug off all and any criticisms. Problems with how the camps are run? Take them up with the locals!
Except that, in reality, Australia exerts tremendous control over Nauru. Until 1968, the island was administered by Canberra as a UN trusteeship. Even today, the Australian dollar serves as the local currency, while Australians fill many of the top positions on the island. Australia consolidated its influence in the 2000s, when John Howard struck a bargain with the administration of René Harris. In return for housing asylum seekers, Nauru received a massive cash injection sorely needed after the collapse of the boom in phosphate (Nauru’s main resource).
Nic Maclellan has documented how the deal derailed the reform process and spurred an Australian-led privatisation push. “Over the last decade,” he writes, “Nauruan politics has been tormented by shifting alliances in its 18-member unicameral parliament (now expanded to 19 seats to avoid months-long deadlocked votes). Since the Howard government first signed a deal with Harris in September 2001, there have been 11 changes of leadership in Nauru – the most recent in June 2013 – and four states of emergency.”
If you think about the role Nauru plays in asylum seeker policy, Australia’s corrosive influence becomes readily understandable. Canberra provides wads of cash so that refugees will be kept pacified away from prying journalists, and in conditions sufficiently unpleasant to deter others. In other words, the government implicitly signals that those who want Australian support should not embrace transparency or worry about human rights or the niceties of international law. As Ben Saul writes:
It is … disingenuous for the Australian government to claim that the processing of asylum seekers on Nauru is largely a matter for the Nauruan government under Nauruan law. The arrangement is in truth an Australian one. Nauru has become an Australian satellite, a quasi-dependency acting under the close control of Australia. […] Nauru is desperate for the money. Australia has abused its position of relative wealth and power to thrust the arrangement upon Nauru. In the process, Australia has contaminated conceptions of the rule of law amongst the Nauruan government, by encouraging it to regularise grossly abusive executive power under a thin veneer of apparent legislative or constitutional authority.
A similar dynamic is unfolding in relation to Papua New Guinea. Activists have long campaigned against PNG’s paramilitary police units known as “mobile squads”, accused by Human Rights Watch of torture and other atrocities. The mobile squads moonlight as private armies for logging companies, who use them to intimidate villagers and environmentalists. Yet these are the police who the Australian government now employs at the Manus Island detention centre, thus providing them with resources and political legitimacy.
Again, it’s not hard to understand the implications for local society of Australia’s need for a massive, military-style camp to imprison refugees out of the sight of the world. PNG is a developing country without strong civil institutions – and here’s its rich and powerful neighbour offering substantial amounts of money for local elites to run a facility more or less explicitly designed to frustrate the media, circumvent human rights groups, and get around international law. What do you suppose the long-term consequences of that might be?
Many commentators trace the visceral sentiment that surfaces during the so-called “refugee debate” back to the origins of Australian nationalism. That is, the tropes still most associated with national identity – mateship, the bushman, the fair go and so on – developed in the 1890s primarily as a corollary of “White Australia” agitation. The Bulletin, the pre-eminent nationalist magazine, famously used as its masthead the slogan “Australia for the white man”; its iconic writer, Henry Lawson, urged his readers to “Get a move upon the Chinkies when you’ve got an hour to spare.”
Yet the fear underpinning Australia xenophobia has always involved a certain projection. It’s not so much that the white settlers who arrived by boat and then brutally dispossessed the locals remained perpetually fearful that others might do the same to them, but rather that Australia’s role as a regional power fosters an ongoing antagonism with nearby nations, perceived either as rivals or as subjects.
We have known for a long time that offshore detention damages refugees. But because of Australia’s size and influence, it also damages the societies in which refugees are housed. That’s what we’re seeing in Nauru now.
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