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Australia's dwindling moral authority in PNG

High Commissioner Deborah Stokes presents a sewing machine to a women's groupMARK EVENHUIS | Asylum Insight

PAPUA New Guineans often express disgust at the cheap, unhealthy cuts of meat dumped on the PNG market by Australia. 

While many relish lamb flaps (fatty sheep spare ribs) they know they are consuming unwanted offcuts that most Australians would only ever feed to their dogs.

Similarly, many of my friends in PNG feel that Australia is taking advantage of its closest and sometimes struggling neighbour by using it as a rubbish heap for its unwanted asylum seekers. 

In August 2013, after the PNG Government announced the reopening of the Manus island detention centre, thousands of university students marched in Port Moresby chanting "PNG is not your dumping ground." That sentiment has not abated.

Despite the Australian media’s typical depiction of PNG as a land of savage brutality, in my experience locals’ instincts are towards hospitality and humanitarianism.

While racism towards Chinese retailers and coastal xenophobia towards Highlanders are both endemic, Papua New Guineans generally pride themselves on their kindness to outsiders. I have regularly felt overcome by the sheer force of Melanesian friendliness.

So it is no surprise that many Manus Islanders, and Papua New Guineans alike, are genuinely aggrieved and confronted by the detention of innocent people on their land.  Yet, to date, significant local opposition has been stifled.

While university students, the church and PNG’s tiny parliamentary Opposition have noisily protested the reopening of the Manus Island detention centre, this dissent has rarely made it into the press. 

PNG’s most read newspaper, the Murdoch-owned Post Courier, has instead been diligently reprinting the Australian High Commission’s many press releases as news.  These articles boast the economic benefits of the detention centre to the people of Manus and the “good” things Australian aid is doing there.

On Manus, some initially welcomed the detention centre as the answer to high unemployment and limited opportunities in the cash economy.  However, for many optimism soon turned into resentment as the perception grew that insufficient benefits were flowing to local businesses and impacted communities, and that increased Australian development assistance was in fact “boomerang aid”.

The floating hotel Bibby Progress, where the detention centre’s swarm of expatriate contractors and officials stayed at a cost of $73,400 a night to Australian taxpayers, became the rallying point for this discontent. 

Many locals were outraged that this fly-in fly-out crowd were not staying in local guesthouses and spending their money in the community.  Neighbouring villagers attempted to cast off the lines holding the Bibby Progress as it directly threatened their traditional fishing grounds and livelihoods.

To quell this growing criticism, the Australian High Commission has been running its own foreign aid-funded ‘cargo cult’ on Manus Island to curry favour with the locals. It has spent tens of millions of additional aid dollars on new roads, schools, hospitals, police stations, an upgraded navy base, radio equipment, scholarships, sewing machines for local women’s groups, small community grants programs, security guard trainings, community sport teams, refurbished market places etc.

Australia is selling the detention centre, and the new security industry it has brought with it, as a boon to the local economy. 

A report produced by the free market neo-liberal think tank Adam Smith International concluded that the processing centre itself had led to a “70% increase in the number of formal jobs in the Manus economy or around 1000 extra jobs for Manusians” and a “60-200% increase in sales by Manus businesses and 25% increase in the number of people they employ.”

Given the island’s high unemployment, limited cash economy and run-down services, many Manus Islanders welcomed the opportunities brought by the flood of aid money and low paid security guard jobs, but not without growing concerns over its toxic impact on local culture and stability. Large, sudden influxes of cash in PNG are typically accompanied by a rise in public disorder, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

The Australian government has also covered the PNG government’s significant legal costs in opposing a judicial led human rights investigation into detention conditions on Manus, and defending a constitutional challenge brought by the PNG Opposition, which sought to challenge the validity of the memorandum of understanding between Australia and PNG sanctioning the reopening of the detention centre.

Australia has a surprisingly good reputation in PNG.  Locals broadly support and appreciate Australian aid, especially in light of the decline in core government services post-Independence (although there are certainly exceptions and reservations). 

Even though many Australians would struggle to locate PNG on a map, many Papua New Guineas feel a strong social, cultural and historical connection with Australia even when they have never set foot there.

Yet, there is growing discontent with the relationship as Papua New Guineans witness Australia’s increasingly unashamed and cynical pursuit of its own interests. 

Australia’s current relationship with its closest neighbor is founded on the belief that the country’s compliance can be bought for the price of desperately needed services and infrastructure – over the next four years, Australia will give an additional $420 million to PNG for the redevelopment of courts, hospitals, universities and highways.

Vehemently rejecting PNG’s Faustian pact with Australia, Fr Denny Guka, the president of the PNG Council of Churches said recently, “We resist the temptation to disregard the values enshrined in our Constitution in exchange for monetary or material gain. We regret the way that Papua New Guinea has become an accomplice in a very questionable handling of human tragedy.”

Throughout PNG, Manus locals have a reputation for being highly literate, business-minded people who know a scam when they see it. The notion that Australia is cynically buying their compliance through its aid budget will not be lost on them, nor will the reality that Australia is inducing Papua New Guineans to abandon their sense of moral justice with the promise of development.

Australia’s abrogation of its responsibilities under the refugee convention has undermined its capacity to be a champion for human rights and good governance in PNG at a time when this is sorely needed.

For instance, PNG has recently reintroduced the death penalty. Australia is saying nothing publicly, despite our clear interest in the abolition of the death penalty throughout our region and reports that both Indonesia and Thailand have offered financial assistance and expertise.

As resource rents begin to slosh into public coffers, corruption is also on the rise.  In 2012, the PNG government’s Task Force Sweep concluded that about “half of the 6.7 billion kina (then $3.5 billion) allocated for development in the PNG budget over the previous three years had been lost through corruption”. The prime minister is now himself implicated in the corruption uncovered by the inquiry.

Last year, the PNG Government also embroiled itself in more scandal after awarding a $50 million dollar medical supplies tender to “a non-certified company that put in a much more expensive bid than the two certified companies that also competed.” Yet, because of Manus, Australia is now handing over more in bilateral aid than ever before.

Australia cannot speak out because our moral standing is deeply compromised by our support for the Manus detention centre and not least by the death of Reza Barati – the asylum seeker who was murdered during 2014’s riots within the centre. 

What can we say when 1,000 innocent people remain imprisoned on Manus under horrendous conditions that a UN special rapporteur has recently deemed tantamount to torture? What standing do we have to talk about human rights anywhere in the world?

Until the centre is closed, Manus will remain a blight on Australia’s international reputation.  When this system of torture finally ends, Australia will owe a deep apology to the people of PNG and Manus who we have gravely disrespected by co-opting their government as an accomplice to our crimes.

Mark Evenhuis has volunteered and worked in Bougainville and PNG as a juvenile justice advocate, human rights advisor and consultant over the last four years.  He currently works at Plan International Australia as a policy and advocacy advisor.  The views expressed in this article are his own.  He wishes to thank Stephanie Lusby and Laura Vines for their input into this piece.

You can link to the fully annotated version of this article here -


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Corney Korokan Alone

Chris Overland's comment on the 09th April 2015 is well thought and expressed given the challenges that national security poses.

Each nation need to demonstrate leadership and care for their own citizens first before any Samaritan endeavors.This is not being diplomatic, but it's the reality. The world leaders are facing that reality on a daily basis.

Having said that, I find it somewhat perplexing and startling to fathom what Australia does to her colony of more than 60 years (PNG) in her visa policy.

The PNG Government stopped offering visas on arrivals to Australians last year (bulk of them who come here for business.

Lately, the PNG government has been pressed hard to rescind that decision, citing Pacific Games convenience and all the rest.

We have just done that, as reported on the daily papers today.

Now we're waiting to hear when those visa reciprocal arrangements will kick into effect.

We've heard the "non-compliance excuse" long enough to categorically say, it will not cut any more.

Michael Dom

Oops, thanks Geoff - other left!

I better warn my besties.

Geoff Hancock

Rudyard Kipling said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet...

Michael if your Aussie friends ever visit PNG they may well end up in West Papua given your explanation of where it is!

PNG occupies the eastern half of the big island at the top of Australia...but you know that.

Peter Kranz

A guard at the Manus Island detention centre who posted links on Facebook to Reclaim Australia and a boycott of halal certified foods has been stood down pending an investigation.

John Akrigg was contracted by Wilson Security on behalf of Transfield Services to work on Nauru in February 2014, and recently listed a change in his employment to the Manus Island detention centre.

Over the past 12 months he has posted several articles and comments that appear to indicate support for a campaign to boycott halal food and stem Islamic immigration to Australia.

Several posts are images sourced from pages hosted by Reclaim Australia, which recently led protests across the country against halal certification, sharia law and increased Muslim immigration.

And in case you aren't aware of who Reclaim Australia really are, they are basically neo-nazis who take the Murdoch press' constant vilification of blacks, muslims and jews as a call to arms to rid Australia of such pernicious non-white foreign influences.

And many have swastikas tatooed on their necks.

No wonder Australia has lost it's moral compass in the South Pacific.

John Kaupa Kamasua

I value the people-to-people touch. Our program at UPNG and Monash in Melbourne had a partnership program funded through AusAID under the Go8 Project a few years back.

After funding lapsed two years ago, this partnership between academics at Monash and our program at UPNG is still vibrant, with continued joint research, publications in journals and sharing of ideas on new projects and so forth.

A lot of talk is cheap. Chip away at what needs to be done between PNG and Australia, a brick at a time. I find people to people partnerships and joint-projects one of the surest ways of strengthening ties between the two countries and maybe in a way make the dollar go a bit further in any project.

Peter Kranz

And politicians wonder why we are cynical about them?

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist”
― George Carlin

Peter Kranz

Corney makes a good point. I seem to remember a few years back Julie Bishop was asking sites like PNG Attitude for ideas to improve relationships between PNG and Australia.

Better-focussed aid to grass-roots groups was one idea, expanding teacher and student exchange visits another, and teaching Tok Pisin in Aussie schools yet another.

What became of these? And Ms Bishop, where are your ideas for a better relationship now?

Well that was before the Federal election, the imposition of the Abbott-led trashing of Australia's foreign aid budget and the massive diversion of funds to detaining asylum seekers in concentration camps - KJ

Corney Korokan Alone

Papua New Guineans speak better English than some of your fastest growing ethnic groups in Australia.

About 200 Geography and History teachers will be willing to come down, like next month and teach your youngsters.

Spread the word and let's have some serious talk please.

Chris Overland

I think that Mark Evenhuis may be correct about generational differences in knowledge about PNG.

The Boomers of my generation do tend to know where PNG is at least, although far fewer know that it was effectively governed by Australia for more than half a century.

Post independence, I think that PNG faded quickly from political and media interest beyond the odd story about the Kokoda Track on Anzac Day, so the lack of awareness on the part of younger people is understandable.

People I talk to about PNG often express surprise that it is literally on our doorstep and has a population exceeding 7 million.

For most, it is a small island country somewhere in the north, along with Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga.

I guess that unless someone is especially curious about the wider world we live in, they tend to stay focussed on the largely parochial issues that matter to them.

Thus, so I read, more than 40% of Americans cannot identify the USA in an Atlas.

I would guess that, at the very least, a similar proportion of Australians could not identify PNG.

It seems that despite living in an ostensibly "joined up" world, with internet access to a vast pool of information about pretty much any topic, many of us contrive to remain startlingly unaware of even pretty basic geography.

Peter Kranz

I think most Australians over 30 know very well where PNG is and have memories and stories to tell. (Not so sure about the young whippersnappers though).

We've had a dozen or so tradesmen around to our house in NSW recently to fix various things (electrics, plumbing, pests etc.) and they were all pretty knowledgeable about PNG and admired our artefacts. One told us about the Bougainville conflict, another said he recognised our Malagan carving from New Ireland, a third said he grew up in Arawa, a fourth said he had a Kundu drum given to him by his father.

Some young buggers may be ignorant, but many older Australians know something about and value PNG. As an example consider Rose's experience in a Brisbane pub where she took vocal exception to someone making loud racist comments. She confronted him and said "My uncle supported your father at Kokoda, and you say this about black people?"

The pub drinkers rallied around and supported her. He was forced to apologise and had to leave in a hurry.

No violence was done.

Peter Kranz

It's worth bearing in mind that the Australian Government (both Lab and Lib) have contracted out their responsibilities to manage immigration detention to private multi-national corporations, who then sub-contract various lesser services to companies like Wilson Security, an Australian company who provide security at Manus and Nauru and who were in charge when alleged murder, torture and child abuse took place.

Here's a handy guide to the three multinationals (Serco, G4S, Transfield) who appear to operate a useful cartel for operating just about anything the gullible Australian Government wants to throw to their corporate buddies in worship of the all-powerful god of economic rationalism.

Sounds suspiciously like the Australians are using a web of contractors and sub-contractors to evade responsibility.

Mark Evenhuis

Hey Ed, maybe it's a generation thing. I'm in my early 30s and I keep on meeting young Australians who don't know where PNG is. I've also met a lot of Papua New Guineans who have encountered a similar level of ignorance.

Although I think Bougainvilleans have the toughest time. My generation has no idea about what happened during the conflict or that Bougainville actually exists.

A Bougainvillean friend who visited recently was understandably frustrated that no one my age had heard of the place and just assumed she was African....

Phil Fitzpatrick

I agree with Ed. Most people in Australia know where PNG is - it's the soft tissue between us and Indonesia.

Peter Kranz

And more scandal here. 'Immigration Department aware of sexual abuse allegations against children for 17 months but failed to act, say former Nauru workers' -

Same for Manus where The Immigration Department chose to vilify and slander Save the Children workers, the Salvation Army, and the Australian Human Rights Commission (Gillian Triggs) for daring to report on child sexual abuse.

What level of mendacity, hypocrisy and downright lying can this Australian Government sink too?

You may think I'm exaggerating, but check the sources. You'll find that Abbott, O'Neill and Co are on a level with Richard Nixon or Bill Skate.

Peter Kranz

Phil - 'whatshisname' is of course Peter Dutton, whose CV includes the glowing recommendation that he was judged by the AMA to be "the worst Health Minister in Australia's history."

And he's now just introduced legislation to grant immunity from prosecution for contractor staff running the Nauru and Manus concentration camps.

So they are effectively protected from any legal action arising from them using excessive force against those subversive poor bloody refugees who might be of a mind to protest about being held in illegal detention and their children subject to institutionalised abuse.

Who cares if a few die and some have their limbs broken? We were just trying to restore socially-acceptable behaviour.

This immunity proposed is greater than that given to Australian police.

So Transfield, Serco and Wilson Security will be above the law. And O'Neil will meekly submit to the Ozzie mastas.


Michael Dom

I don't much pander to the morality of it either - it was simply a stupid idea, made without consent of parliament, committing my country to an international problem we were not prepared to handle.

That we are paid for this job may be considered something akin to prostitution, but in today's world of course economic imperatives take the lead.

The dirty deal is done. Now we have to handle the repercussions, most of which are heavily censored in the media.

Public opinion polls seem to reflect the notion that 'so long as they're not on my turf, they ain't my problem'. Is that what Aussies really think?

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think the 'Pacific Solution' was originally John Howard's idea, Michael.

Then Kevin Rudd refined it by adding the 'thou shalt never set foot in Australia' clause.

Abbott and Morrison (and now whatshisname) added the secrecy clause and tightened the thumb screw.

Bill Shorten still likes the idea but reckons the accommodation and tucker needs an upgrade.

That is, they're all culpable.

That's why I vote for the Greens these days.

Chris Overland

While some Australians have genuine concerns about the moral and legal legitimacy of placing a Detention Centre on Manus, repeated public opinion surveys reveal that there is overwhelming public support for the current government's "Sovereign Borders" operation, which has effectively stopped people smuggling in its tracks.

As a direct consequence, the large number of deaths at sea which were a feature of the previous government's "humanitarian" approach have also ceased.

Australia's necessarily hard nosed approach to illegal immigration undertaken by a large scale criminal conspiracy has indeed been criticised, notably by those countries which do not have the same problem.

Those same countries often have been remarkably reluctant to help when it comes to finding permanent places for the thousands of people fleeing the endemic violence in places like North Africa, with a mostly unaided Italy bearing the brunt of this flood of humanity.

In places like the UK, so serious is public anger about uncontrolled immigration that it has become the dominant policy issue in the current election campaign and will very probably determine its outcome.

It will heavily influence the outcome of the forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the EU, where the political elites have belated realised that the public may very well decide to opt out rather than endure the impositions of a remote European bureaucracy.

What has happened on Manus Island therefore needs to be viewed as part of a much larger international problem where morality invariably plays second fiddle to what is expedient and practical.

Australia has a long tradition of absorbing people from many different cultures and nationalities, with over 200 nationalities now represented in the country.

Net immigration is now running at over 200,000 per year and will remain at this level for the indefinite future.

The majority of the intake are from non-English speaking backgrounds, notably the Indian sub-continent, South East Asia and China.

Australia resettles around 14,000 refugees each year, ranking third in the world for this process behind the USA and Canada.

The extent to which Australia's "moral authority" has been compromised by negotiating the placement of the Detention Centre on Manus Island is a moot point.

The principal valid objection to the current arrangement is that, ostensibly at least, it requires PNG to resettle any detainees deemed to be genuine refugees.

This flies in the face of PNG's culture and traditions and I cannot see that it will ever be realistically possible.

So, the whole policy debate lumbers on, with everyone claiming the high moral ground.

But the boats have stopped, for the time being at least, and PNG (especially Manus Island) is the beneficiary of substantial additional financial largesse.

Bribery? Immoral? Maybe, but it all depends on your perspective.

Chris is right about where Australians stand on asylum seekers. In a February 2015 poll, 60% basically agreed with the government's treatment of refugees and 26% said they are badly treated. The rest didn't know. A big majority but a significant minority - KJ

Michael Dom

It's a dirty game Tony and Peter put us up to, and both nations will come away stained with the guilt of it.

We are our brothers' keepers. We killed the Samaritan. Our God is not their God.

At the end of their political careers we should tie Manus (and Nauru) around their necks and sink both culprits into the Atlantic - not the Pacific, because that's our shared place.

And about the map thing, Ed - grain of salt. I had to explain to a few friends I met in Australia (not all Aussies) that PNG was "you know the big island at the top end of Australia? Well, PNG is the western half of it".

Either that or, "keep walking north up Cape York Peninsula and you'll be looking right at it".

Ed Brumby

'...many Australians would struggle to locate PNG on a map...'? I don't think so.

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