The National, Monday, May 9, 2011
THE news that PNG territorial boundaries could once again play host to Australia-bound asylum seekers is interesting in that the Australian media has trumpeted a return to the “Pacific Solution”, a term coined during the Howard era which called for stringent controls on the influx of refugees into the Australian mainland from Asia.
Although no official announcement has been made regarding the detouring of these oppressed individuals to detention centres in selected locations in the Pacific, the Australian government-funded facility on Manus Island has been mentioned as one likely to be operational again.
According to Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott, this represents an about face by the current Australian Labor Party-led government, in particular prime minister Julia Gillard’s insistence that it is not adopting a policy which was criticised on end when hard-nosed prime minister John Howard stuck to his guns in saying no to border crossers.
Abbott seized on the revelations that Manus was being considered for reopening. The opposition leader attacked the proposal as an admission from the government “that its border protection policies have completely, utterly and absolutely failed”.
So, what does this mean for PNG?
The first thing that was picked up on when the news initially broke last week was that the Gillard government was seriously considering revisiting the shelved Pacific solution. At no time was it mentioned that the PNG government had been formally approached to acquiesce with the supposed plan.
PNG politicians are a funny lot. Proud of their standing but, yet, not having the commensurate achievements, on a whole, to give them steady legs on which to bleat or brag, whatever the case may be.
Upon the news going viral within a matter of days, everything that the media put out was accepted as gospel without either government having made an official or joint statement. It goes without saying that this hailstorm has come about because of an Australian media eager to, at times, beat up on an issue which may prove influential for the government.
To compound the situation, the Australian government affirmed that it had met with Timor-Leste officials regarding the asylum seeker issue and held talks with them, fuelling speculations that PNG and Pacific minnows Nauru (two locations that Australia had built facilities to house asylum seekers) would again be called on to play a role in Australia’s efforts to handle the boat people.
For its part, the Gillard government has reacted with tact and played its cards close to the chest neither denying no affirming the reports.
It is interesting to note that the issue of asylum seekers has come to the fore in light of a recent protest and strike by detainees at the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney last month. A group of detained persons at the facilities staged a violent sit-in protest which lasted several days and exposed Australia’s policy on handling refugees, illegal immigrants, boat people and border crossers as inadequate and, at times, a farce. It also showed Australian bureaucracy as nothing more than a difficult and obstinate creature to deal with when it comes to such issues. Of course, this followed similar actions by detainees in an Australian-funded facility on Christmas Island earlier this year.
Many Australians, particularly the middle class, are concerned at their government’s continuing inability to stem the flow of illegals into the country and why the ones that get through after meeting all requirements for integration into their society are still given the runaround by a government that is clearly not sure of itself on the matter.
This fallibility in policy tends to make governments nervous, especially those built on less firm or rather conditional alliances.
As all Papua New Guineans are aware, we take particular offence at outsiders telling us how to run our affairs but more so in a condescending tone – intentional or not.
We can go back several years ago when our “chief” Sir Michael Somare was given some preferential treatment of the wrong kind while transiting through Australia which he, and as a result his government, took offence to while Australian customs’ excuse was that it was part of protocol.
Gillard is sure to make an announcement this week whether confirming or killing media reports on the matter. It would be wise for her to include PNG’s government in any decision or plan to accommodate these refugees in Manus.