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 - http://www.asyluminsight.com/c-mark-evenhuis#.VSQqffmUdqV