Aussie Imperialism: Kevin Rudd and Dumping on the Pacific

The pro-refugee groups are milling about along Swanston Street, Melbourne, the arterial route of the city centre in what apparently qualifies as Australia’s “cultural” capital. The actions of protest took place over the weekend to respond to the first group of individuals destined for Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Then, there was the call: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be going to the polls on September 7, hoping that his campaigning will hoodwink voters about his autistic governing skills. The ballot will take place a day after his ego-puffing escapade at St. Petersburg (G-20, and all that), but just in time for a good electoral spank.

A series of publications, mostly associated with the Left, were also being advertised amidst the agitated protesters. There were petitions against the not so new carceral system being imposed on impoverished Pacific states. The old fashioned notion about refugees is that they are fleeing persecution and seeking asylum. The modern definition, sprinkled with its distasteful approach to humanity, is that such people leave prisons in order to find others.

The message of the protests is clear and, for the most part, accurate: a “racist” solution to a refugee issue, a politicised situation for a humanitarian crisis. Indeed, the Australian government, with wonky helmsman Rudd, has made it clear how it detests any solution that might be moderate, that might pass the issue of refugee settlement to the back pages. Everything, and for that matter, anything goes.

Now, Nauru, a population of 9,400, the world’s smallest republic with a land mass a mere 21 square kilometres, will be receiving, processing and settling (note the last word) refugees. Not even the amoral denizens of the Howard government, the first to implement a “Pacific” solution, went this far after 2001, though it is fitting to note that Australia has always had its dirtied paws on the island, having been granted authority to administer it under the League of Nations mandate system after the First World War. Independence in 1968 evidently did not mean much. The White Tribe of Asia has always had a misguided sense of its muscle.

During the seemingly dark days of Howard’s governance, those asylum claims deemed valid would tend to ensure a ticket to the Australian mainland. Refugee applicants were to be handled with Australian sponsored tongs, silver-like as they were. Those instances of successful processing were kept quiet, but it was done. The intention now is to bloody the nose that bit more, to drive the stake that bit further into the jurisprudence of the refugee convention.

As with the arrangement with PNG, the approach with Nauru involves bribing sweeteners, garnished with the skin-crawling promises that power promises. There is no infrastructure to speak of, be it education, be it processing, be it, in fact, discharging the most rudimentary needs to the population. Unemployment rates in Nauru are soaring at uncomfortable peaks of 40 percent. The state, or what passes for it, has a housing crisis. Animus is intense.

Leader of the Australian Greens Christine Milne puts it bluntly. “Out of sight, out of mind. Outsource the cruelty we want to impose on people and put it on you.” For Milne, the situation is not only untenable but a fantastic nightmare. “Is he (Mr Rudd) expecting a country like Nauru to be able to resettle families when they don’t produce their own food, when there are virtually no jobs for people to go to when the education services are minimal.”

The target audience, argues human-rights advocate Father Frank Brennan is more those “in western Sydney” as opposed to those “in the streets of Indonesia, where people are waiting to get on boats.”

Rudd himself claims that, given Nauru has “a small population”, “only expect modest numbers to ever be involved in settlement.” He has his eyes on a regional network of partners intent on scraping and carving out the UN Refugee Convention, dividing burdens that are rightfully theirs. They don’t want to shred the ailing document. They want to amputate it.

His dispensable deputy Tony Burke expressed the idea that other states will be interested to traffic in processing the flesh of refugees. “We’re not going out there selling the idea or trying to talk people into agreeing, but there are a number of countries within the region that have signed the (UN Refugee Convention) and who have genuine commitment to wanting to take a regional approach, and if we’re able to reach agreement with them then we will.” These days, the ones who did not sign have the moral cards. The signatories are the true butchers.

It bears reminding where these “solutions” come from. They are not feats of imagination but a lack of. The strength of character lies in how a humanitarian solution can be found for a humanitarian crisis. The latter does not, as this case demonstrates, imply the former. Often, desperation is the magnet for brutality. If one is vulnerable, then one demands mistreatment. Just ask Rudd, Australia’s foremost former and current Prime Minister.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.