The Nauru mirage — Clive Kessler
JUNE 28 — The Australian Parliament yesterday debated a possible compromise resolution, moved by an independent MP, on the question of the handling of refugees, asylum-seekers and so-called “uninvited “boat people”.
The resolution was passed in the Lower House by a narrow majority. But today it goes to the Senate, where — despite the AFP press report’s hopeful headline “Australia, Malaysia refugee swap progress” — it has no chance of being passed.
This is because it is rejected by both the Liberal-led opposition coalition and by the Greens, who hold the balance of power in the Upper House.
The Labor-led government wants to implement the “overseas processing” of asylum seekers by activating the Malaysia option or “solution”. The Liberal-led opposition also wants to implement overseas processing, but by its preferred recourse of reactivating the “Nauru option” that was developed by the former Howard government.
The Greens do not want, and will not support, overseas processing in any form.
They believe that international human rights concerns cannot be satisfied through overseas processing. For them only “onshore processing” in Australia is acceptable.
Yet that option provides every incentive for the cruel trade of the people smugglers to continue, a powerful reason for their unseaworthy and unconscionably overcrowded boats to keep coming.
So long as “onshore processing” continues and remains the only approach, it provides direct encouragement for desperate people to “try their luck”, and no reason to anybody, smugglers or their clients, to cease and desist, to act differently.
The Liberals maintain that the Nauru option was once workable and still is, even though those experts who devised that solution for the Howard government now maintain that it can no longer be effective.
The Labor party holds that the “Malaysia solution” can be effective. But it cannot be shown to be workable unless it is given a try, a chance to prove itself in practice.
This, precisely, is what the combined forces of the Liberal-led opposition and the otherwise Labor government-supporting Greens are determined to prevent.
Yet the “Nauru option”, as offered by the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott yesterday in his amendment to the government-backed Bill of independent MP Rob Oakeshott, is at best a mirage, more likely a wilful delusion.
The opposition’s “Nauru only” option is linked to a promised increase to 20,000 in Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake.
Far from stemming “the flow of boats” and the people smuggling trade, this proposal will only increase the grounds for belief, among both the purveyors of places on unseaworthy vessels and their desperately clamouring clientele, that some significant additional “slack” is now to be created in the Australian immigration regimen.
It raises the prospect of thousands more places for the so-called “queue-jumpers” whom the smugglers can place, by themselves or with the timely help of rescuers on the high seas, on Christmas Island — and, once there, for them to get into Australia ahead of those so-called “genuine refugees” waiting forlornly overseas in offshore camps.
So this scheme does not work even in its own terms, but rather helps defeat its own proclaimed purposes.
The opposition claims that this option, being under Australian supervision, will respect human dignity and human rights principles in a way that the Malaysia option cannot.
Here we should remember two things.
First, the appalling disregard for human rights and human dignity that was involved when then Defence Minister Reith had visibly anguished Australian military personnel unload the MV Tampa survivors on Nauru in 2001.
Government insistence on this exercise caused more damage to the morale of this nation’s armed forces than any battlefield setback.
Second, the Australian government soon handed over large parts of the daily management of the Nauru centre to a specialist non-Australian commercial operator of custodial facilities whose practices worldwide were in time found greatly wanting for their disregard for human dignity and human rights.
So the so-called “Nauru option” is clearly not an option.
The Oakeshott Bill did not opt exclusively for either of these two contested options. It remained, as its author himself put it, agnostic. It sought to set up an arrangement for a trial one-year period, during which both the Nauru and the Malaysia options might operate.
That would do two things.
It would prevent the people smugglers from offering certain “onshore processing” with its great ensuing likelihood of a successful claim for permanent residence, then citizenship.
And it would have let both options, the two contested approaches, run simultaneously. It would have put them to practical test and given them both the opportunity to prove their effectiveness and adequacy.
But the opposition refused to endorse this compromise. For them it was “Nauru only” or nothing.
What is needed in this fraught matter is the creation of an effective regionally focused international regimen for the handling of refugees and the discouraging of the unconscionable people-smuggling trade and its vicious racketeers.
This regional network has to be centred in, and involve, the sovereign nations of Southeast Asia, those located between Australia and the Middle East plus South Asia, not out in the remote western Pacific.
Nauru is outside that zone.
The arrangement also has to be one that is co-operatively sustained by sovereign nations. It is sovereign nations, not abstract declarations of principles about refugee rights, that are the effective force within the international community that alone can make these or any arrangements work.
With its phosphate exhausted, Nauru is now an emptied-out husk of an island, a ravaged skeleton economy.
On that depleted basis no genuinely sovereign nation can stand.
Nauru is an island with an only illusory or fictive sovereignty.
It has a sovereignty not much greater than the island that was the US’s equivalent at the time when the Nauru option was exercised by the Howard government, namely Guantanamo.
Nauru has a population of a few thousand. Of them some 200 make up the “political class”. Of them about 30, from a few leading families, are elected to representative office and from them the chief minister and executive are drawn.
So what is Nauruan sovereignty?
It demonstrably amounts to very little when, as we have seen, Nauru’s ability to decide and implement its own preferred policies, and so assert and enjoy national sovereignty, can be simply curtailed and redirected when the chief minister needs a personal favour from Australia to get him to Melbourne for urgent medical treatment.
Malaysia is not an easy nation for Australians to deal with. It is, in Australian experience, proud, prickly, wilful and recalcitrant.
Recalcitrant in the strict literal sense of the word, as I have often explained to Dr Mahathir’s admirers there.
A recalcitrant is one who breaks ranks, who gets out of line when staying in line may suit the agenda of others but will not serve its own.
That is Malaysia. It has a will of its own.
It has an effective will because it is a serious sovereign nation, an important part of the regional and wider international system.
It is one of those serious players with whom, and with whom alone, some serious set of arrangements can be worked out, developed, maintained and also constantly improved.
It is the kind of nation with which Australia, if it wants to achieve some effective framework for managing this crisis, must deal.
Nauru is not.
It is captive entity, a puppet nation enjoying a purely notional or fictive, even delusional, sovereignty.
The opposition’s preferred “Nauru option” does not help resolve Australia’s and the region’s problem, and it provides no advantage in the upholding of human rights and dignity.
The proffering of the non-existent “Nauru option” should cease. It is nothing more than a mirage, a cynically promoted deceit.
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.