Australia should leave Nauru alone -- we're doing more harm than good
Journalist and Pacific islands researcher Nic Maclellan argues that calls for Canberra to intervene in Nauru’s judicial crisis underplay Australia’s responsibility for the current mess.
Crikey‘s Monday editorial says “the Australian government is going to have to get involved” in Nauru after the purported sacking of magistrate Peter Law and Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames. Guy Rundle calls it a coup and says “the Australian government can’t help but involve itself in this outrageous abuse of presidential power”. But what if intervention from Canberra is the cause of the problem, rather than the solution?
There are many different players responsible for the threat to judicial oversight in Nauru, which damages the rights of Nauruan citizens as well as the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees detained on the island. However, sheeting home the blame only to Nauru President Baron Waqa and Justice Minister David Adeang, who are responsible for the judicial sackings, underplays Canberra’s contribution to the current chaos.
Over the last decade, the establishment of asylum seeker processing centres on Nauru has contributed to undermining the Nauruan legal system.
When it suits them, Canberra officials have been happy to undercut the authority of the Nauruan courts. For example, during the Howard-era “Pacific solution”, a 2004 memorandum of understanding between the two countries made it clear that Australian police officers deployed to Nauru are governed by Australian, rather than Nauruan, law. The MOU states that the head of the Assisting Australian Police is responsible to the AFP Commissioner and that Australian police deployed in Nauru shall not be subject to “the jurisdiction of any Nauruan disciplinary authority, court or tribunal”.
Indeed, the whole purpose of offshore processing is to dump asylum seekers beyond the administrative and judicial protections of Australian law, while placing responsibility on Nauruan courts and officials.
Under pressure from Canberra, Nauru’s Parliament passed the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act four days before Christmas 2012, to legalise a greater role in processing (the UNHCR has refused to process asylum applications on Nauru and Canberra wants to deny all responsibility for resettlement). The Nauru government then seconded Australian officers to its Department of Justice and Border Control to commence the assessment of asylum applications and to begin training five Nauruan officials in how to determine refugee status.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has documented the deteriorating conditions in the Nauruan camps, and when people granted refugee status are left stranded indefinitely under the “no advantage” test, with no hope of resettlement, they will start to protest. When peaceful protests escalate to riots, as they did on Nauru in July 2013, responsibility for court prosecutions and imprisonment of offenders falls on the already burdened Nauruan legal system.
Successive Liberal and Labor governments have also promoted economic policies for Nauru that have shifted the burden for government failure onto the Nauruan community, even as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on Australian companies that manage the detention camps.
During the 1990s, mismanagement of Air Nauru, failed property investments and even the bankrolling of a short-run musical on London’s West End frittered away the Nauruan trust funds established from decades of phosphate mining revenues.
By the early 2000s, a country that had never relied on donor aid hit the financial wall just as then-prime minister John Howard was looking for a place to dump asylum seekers beyond the protection of Australian law. Funding for Australia’s offshore refugee policy had the effect of bailing out the government, led by then-president Rene Harris. Hundreds of millions of dollars funnelled through Nauru delayed economic and constitutional reforms urgently needed to cope with the decline in phosphate revenues, the mismanagement of the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust and allegations of corruption.
Under Pacific Solution Mark Two, the ALP and Coalition have competed to escalate the problem, highlighted by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s pre-election proposal to increase the number of asylum seekers on Nauru to 5000 (in a country of fewer than 10,000 people). This proposal for a tent city came soon after the July 2013 riot, which caused an estimated $60 million of damage at the island’s detention centre. Eames was sacked as these rioters are being brought before the courts.
“… Australia continues to bail out the Nauruan government, regardless of actions that impact on the rights of its citizens.”
In the hours before the 2013 riot, Nauruan Justice Minister David Adeang suspended the country’s police commissioner — Australian Federal Police officer Richard Britten. People may be surprised to learn that an Australian was leading the police force in Nauru — but over the last decade, the process of warehousing asylum seekers in the small Pacific nation has increased the number of Australian and expatriate officials in key departments within the country’s administration, including finance, policing, utilities and planning.
The claim from Canberra that these officials must respect Nauruan sovereignty is undercut by evidence of Australia’s role in determining economic and social policy in Nauru over the last decade. As detailed in my recent article for Overland, an influx of Australian officials into government positions in Nauru has been accompanied by a neoliberal agenda of privatisation and user-pays policies. Over more than a decade, these policies have transformed Nauru’s financial status, increasing its dependency on Australian aid.
In September 2005, the Howard government proposed a “Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Nauru for Australian Development Assistance to Nauru and Cooperation in the Management of Asylum Seekers”. This 2005 MOU set out requirements for changes to the public sector, explaining that ongoing aid was conditional on “implementation of the public sector reform strategy, resulting in implementation of an affordable scale of salary payments and design of a strategy for a substantial reduction in the size of the Nauru public service”.
With limited availability of private sector jobs, these cuts to the public service have impacted on community livelihoods. For this reason, many Nauruans have been willing to put up with the detention centres, because they bring much-needed jobs and cash into the economy. Even so, the arrival of hundreds of asylum seekers, police and camp staff in 2012-13 has once again disrupted cost structures on the island, with rental costs soaring, increased food prices affecting nutrition for the unemployed and renewed pressure on the already limited water supply.
As well as supporting Nauru’s Chief Justice, Australians should recognise that there are many Nauruans of goodwill who are concerned about the current situation. Under the current Nauruan leadership, we have seen the sidelining of domestic critics, including politicians like Roland Kun and Kieren Keke, legal practitioners, and community leaders who are anxious about the social and cultural impacts of Australia’s asylum seeker policy (even though these people have mostly supported the presence of the detention centres and tried to operate them within the Nauruan constitution).
Over the last decade, Nauruan politics has been tormented by shifting alliances in its unicameral Parliament (now expanded to 19 seats to avoid months-long deadlocked votes). Since the Howard government first signed a deal with Harris in September 2001, there have been 12 changes of leadership in Nauru and four states of emergency. Overall, our policies are harming, not helping, the development of Nauru.
The policy of “stopping the boats” has coincided with a policy of “stopping the cheques“, as the Abbott government slashes aid and climate finance to Pacific island nations. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has just announced a $650 million reduction to development pledges made in the 2013-14 aid budget. This financial year’s budget for the Pacific islands region has been cut from $943.7 million to $882.2 million, meaning development programs must be cut in the next few months for Vanuatu, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and other poor island states. The one Pacific country that has not received a reduction since last May’s budget is, you guessed it, Nauru!
There is plenty of criticism to go around for the current crisis, but the bottom line is that Australia continues to bail out the Nauruan government, regardless of actions that impact on the rights of its citizens. If the camps were closed and asylum seekers brought to Australia for processing, the people of Nauru could work to transform their society in a more orderly manner.
*Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands, and is author of “What has Australia done to Nauru?”, Overland 212.