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Feb 21, 2014

The inconvenient truth about our PNG 'solution'

The so-called "PNG solution" will never work, says Crikey's writer-at-large. Papua New Guinea is a troubled and violent state, and it will never truly accept refugees.


Seventy-five years ago, in the depths of World War II, the British sent out a secret weapon to help Australia in the fight against the Japanese, who were heading downwards to the island of New Guinea. His name was Tom Harrison, and he was an anthropologist, one of the dozens employed in secret ops during the Pacific War. Harrison was a crazy man, founder of a group called Mass Observation in the United Kingdom, which mobilised hundreds of people to take notes of one activity — the British pub, hospital waiting rooms — on a single day. The activity would eventually flow into a series of films that served as precursors for Big Brother.

In West Papua, Harrison’s job was to organise surveillance and tracking systems employing the local population. His more radical solution was to reintroduce head-hunting, which had been discontinued by the missionaries decades before — and then point head-hunters in the direction of the Japanese. It was said he had managed to start the process among tribes that had never practised it. After the war was over, it was not easily discontinued, if it ever has been …

But that’s been the difficulty of talking about PNG and the non-solution. The place is carved out on the map, has a Parliament, a flag, etc. One assumes that its internal character is one of modernity. To talk about the fact that it isn’t, that it’s a kinship society — in which identity and meaning for most is bound up with the group they belong to, the land they occupy and the groups they relate to — is inconvenient for both Left and Right. For some on the Left, because it sounds like a charge of primitivism. For those on the Right, because they don’t believe in that sort of differentiation at all. There are just places where people work and live in McMansions and watch My Kitchen Rules, and all the rest are failed states to be dictated to.

I have no idea what Kevin Rudd thought about PNG when he devised this current “solution”, but he’s a smart guy who should have known better. The idea that PNG could be a place for either straightforward detention or eventual settlement of people from wildly different societies was always fictional. PNG is a troubled state — not a failed one, as Mark Kenny suggested in The Age — and a violent one, as Waleed Aly suggested in his analysis of the official sadism that is now part of refugee policy.

But it’s not for those reasons that the PNG solution would never work — it is because there is no simple or easy way to be a stranger in PNG, and to drop people in there as part of a state process is to present them as a challenge to the “other” — i.e. the population — who happen to be there. That could be overly exoticised — since it’s clear that much of the recent violence comes from the usual institutional processes of total systems like camps. But thanks to the peerless reporting, largely by New Matilda, it seems likely that much of the violence came from locals, in uniform or out, applying the rules of payback culture to the detainees, whom they constituted as a mass.

“The PNG solution has to be abolished, because it has never been a solution.”

Such violence seems a step beyond the drip-drip-drip sadism of people who might be found in a G4S — or any guard’s — uniform. Payback is something that doesn’t mess around. Nor is it over in a single round (a lot of such groups accepted Christianity because they were sick of endless vendetta — “turn the other cheek” functioned as an acquitment of the obligation to feud, just as it originally had in Jewish culture).

Hence the safety of the detainees absolutely cannot be guaranteed, from various angles. But nor could it ever. Nor could the possibility of settling. There is no path to simply becoming a PNG citizen, no jobs, no impersonal public sphere to speak of. Should they get out of the camps, their best bet would be to make it to the southern coast and island hop to Australia. At low tide, they’ll be able to walk to Australian territory, and smuggling them to Cape York could provide a much-needed boost to the Torres Strait islands economy. But there is nothing funny about current conditions.

The level of misery and despair imposed has set a new benchmark. These are camps on the level of those run by the Vichy French or Franco’s Spain — not lethal, but so utterly anti-human that they function as a tiny foretaste of hell. And the possibility of things spiralling really, really out of control, with lethality from the outside, remains high.

For Rudd, the PNG solution functioned as an expression of his cleverness, having regained the leadership, after the hapless Julia Gillard. It has all the hallmarks still, something off the top of the head, with no regard to consequences. For Abbott and Co, it functions as part of the new imperial projection that this so-called “Asian century” Prime Minister has projected. What still exists in the Liberal Party is a casual disdain for non-white nations, a belief that they somehow aren’t real. Hence the willingness to traduce borders, subject small nations to blackmail, etc.

It couldn’t be done unless a sense of superiority remained. With Abbott that is doubled by his notion of the superiority, even the Truth, of European Christian civilisation, and its ordained place in the scheme of things. Is this fully conscious? Of course not. Everyone lives by their own myths, and if they are so willing, against all rational self-restraint,

The PNG solution has to be abolished, because it has never been a solution. It promises years of fresh misery, a recolonialised PNG, and fresh disaster, which may be years in the unfolding. Not one iota of it is honest or even moral. It will take its price in heads. Whose those will be remains to be seen …


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25 thoughts on “The inconvenient truth about our PNG ‘solution’

  1. klewso

    From outside, PNG looks more like a “No Man’s Land” – a half-baked experiment – where it’s survival of the fittest? And the other half bequeathed to Indonesia to do with as they like?

  2. Shane Bennett

    Didn’t Harrison go into Borneo?

  3. maxcelcat

    Well said. It makes me ill that both major parties are responsible for this mess. No one will make things better if it looks like they’re going to have to admit they made a mistake.

  4. Electric Lardyland

    Doing a little bit of research on the very limited number of reports on the resettlement of refugees in PNG, it seems that no refugees have been resettled; unless you count Manus Island detention centre as resettlement.

    This is from a recent report:

    [There are currently 1,300 detainees on Manus Island. PNG’s Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato says officials have started processing refugee applications.

    But the country does not have a visa category for refugees and there’s been little public information about how, and where, they might be resettled.

    Mr Pato has told parliament the option of resettling refugees in a third country will also be explored.

    “So what the cabinet has decided recently is to appoint a group of eminent Papua New Guineans who will be assisted by relevant expertise from the UN, from the Australian Government, and other responsible stakeholders, to come up with relevant policy framework determining the question whether those asylum seekers will or will not be settled in PNG,” he said.]

    So it seems, despite past claims, that the PNG government are still unsure whether to accept any refugees at all.

  5. Dez Paul

    There you go again, Guy, telling the truth. So inconvenient. Australia is fast becoming a pariah in Asia and the tropical north. I forsee PNG throwing its lot in with China by 2020, all because a feckless, mandarin speaking?! Australian PM (followed by an idiot, reckless PM) failed to actually look ahead. PNG would rather be a vassal state of China, than Australia I imagine.

  6. Janet Maher

    I wholeheartedly disagree with on-shore detention. The reason is because on-shore detention is abused by lawyers who work pro-bono to overturn asylum cases through laws they themselves, as well as what refugee advocates lobbied for, who are more in line with far-left politics, such as encouraging boat journeys which is advocated by the socialist faction of The Greens. It is corrupt. It is based on the far-left socialist agenda for open borders. I don’t think that the traumatisation and drowning of children tagged along by others through people smuggling syndicates is acceptable. Several countries that are UN refugee convention signatories are bypassed, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan.

    I support genuine humanitarian refugee intake, such as from UN run refugee camps. Not asylum seekers arriving to Australian moorings without documentation. Though advocates claim 90% of boat people are genuine refugees. It’s disingenuous & biased as it depends upon the basis of which refugee status was granted. The UNHCR Handbook for asylum seekers specifies in Part B that if there’s no documentation, benefit of the doubt is a preferred option if the asylum claim seems credible. One part actually specifies it’s “frequently necessary to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt” because claimants can’t always prove their case.

  7. AR

    IF the detainees are deemed to be refugees under the UN Convention to which we are signatories, then we are OBLIGED to settle them, here, in the country to which they submitted themselves for assessment.
    The PNG idiocy is as perfect an example as could be satirised of whjy the last election was a choice between the evil of two lessers.

  8. Ken Lambert

    Janet Maher makes some good points.

    The “Rundle in the Jungle” solution is to wring hands and knash teeth when the detainees cut up a bit rough.

    Well the Iranians I saw on ABC TV tonight looked seriously half smart to me. Caps on backwards these boys were running an insouciance bound to raise the hackles of the average Abbott supporter and not a few blue collar punters (those who watch the ABC).

    The Abbott solution is working. The pipeline of corrupt Indonesian officials in league with the smugglers is choking if not plugged.

    These well connected $10000 self-select immigrants have got the message – try and you will lose your money and end up back in Jakarta or sweating in PNG.

    For those unlucky ones who got caught in Gillard’s Manus moment and Kevin07-13’s piece of shameless me-tooism all that can be said really is – tough titties; your predecessors had a great run and you missed out. Your best option is to go back to Indonesia and try the legal route.

  9. David Hand

    Here’s an inconvenient truth Guy.
    No one has entered the asylum seeker system since mid December. Now we read that they’re not entering Indonesia in very big numbers either. That’s two months now.

    Oops! Tony’s stopped the boats. Dang! Let’s call it a failure anyway!

  10. Guy Rundle

    If you believe that the Manus Island regime etc, will reduce drownings – that recent passionate cause of the Right – then my argument is as it was when the strategy of deterrent sadism and cruelty was first watched. When you start doing that, you quickly go down a path where you become the author of cruelty and death. What happens to these detainees in 2 years, in 5 years, in 10?

    If you support the PNG ‘solution’ simply because it stops the boats for selfish reasons, then we part company, gladly.

  11. Kevin_T

    This can’t be correct, Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer told the youth audience of Triple J’s Hack that the process of processing asylum seekers (slowly) on Manus Island was “right, fair and proper”, much to the dismay of Greens Senator Scott Ludlum.

    Tuesday 18 February 2014 about a third of the way through the podcast:

  12. rhwombat

    Janet Maher & David Hand: the banality of evil.

  13. klewso

    “Reduce drownings” – the latest burladero.

  14. klewso

    It’s all Right here in “Conservative Bull-Shiting Weekly”.
    Start with the Conservative “matador” fighting “Beast of the Week” (who up ’til last week was more than likely grazing, doing “their job”); that can be “unions”, “climate change science”, “this economic crisis”, “the ABC”, “Fairfax”, “Labor”, “The Greens”, “fixed markets (other than media)”, “elites” – i.e. “The Left” – anyone who doesn’t agree with Murdoch philosophy.
    Then there’s the picadoor mounted on their high-horse (like Murdoch?) who uses his advantage to lance “The Beast” behind the neck – to weaken it’s neck muscles and ability to protect itself from their aggregated bullying.
    Then there are the “band-o’-rilleros(?)” (like Blot and other apologists) who stick their barbs in the neck of “The Beast”, to further weaken it’s ability to defend itself.
    If this fails, and the bull gets too close, there’s always those burladeros. They usually have a choice to hide behind.
    Personally, I’d like to see these “saviours” face their bull without all the back-up?

  15. Ken Lambert

    Spare us Guy – the author of cruelty and death?? Seriously??

    The line you are running is a leftist version of social Darwinism. You know; if the smugglees are smart and motivated enough to get $10000 and hire a corrupt official and smuggler then they will make great immigrants.

    The poor bastards left in camps who don’t have a razoo can dip out on a refugee place OR if not we will then have an unlimited refugee intake for all comers. Which country can afford that?

    Guy’s line is the moral equivalent of having two windows at our embassy in Jakarta – one has a sign which says – “those with $10000 line up here and you will get permanent residency in Oz after a short boat trip” and the other says: “those without a razoo can wait and see how many $10000 refugees make it to Oz and we’ll see if there are any places left for you poor bastards after”

    And for those in tents in steamy PNG – our forbears had a pretty steamy time with malaria and Japs in 1942-45 in PNG and our Army had a pretty steamy time in tents in Bouganville and East Timor, and what is good enough for our volunteer troops is good enough for a self select refugee.

    And finally in 2, 5 and 10 years time the $10000 mob will all have decided to accept an offer they can’t refuse – go back to Jakarta of further and try the legal route.

  16. klewso

    They started off honestly enough labelling their xenophobic poison of choice for what it was – a distillate of “race & religion”.
    When that got a bit hot, they changed the label to “potential terrorists”.
    That took on water, with the publicity about the calibre of “underaged boat people”, so Howard and Reith chanced their hand and launched “Immorality” :- “What sort of people would throw their kids overboard to blackmail our navy into picking them up – to be taken in?”
    When that barrel was upended, to expose their scuttling, it became a cause to “deprive these diabolical scavengers-of-hope and people smugglers of their revenue base”.
    Then it became “they’re all economic refugees, tearing up their papers” to get in.
    Now it’s to “stop the drownings”.
    It’s still “Rot Gut”.

  17. klewso

    And let’s not forget, the moral black-hole now responsible for running this “concentration camp”, when the opportunity presented itself, chose to play political shuttle-cock with “the cost of funerals”.

  18. R. Ambrose Raven

    Looming problems in the littoral States promise to quite satisfactorily rival the boat-people entertainment. Australia’s RAMSI mission in the Solomons seeks to support nation-building, yet open-slather logging which we are doing absolutely nothing to oppose will log out the Solomons within a very few years, leaving a lot more unemployed people plus a devastated environment.

    While brutality is obviously our preferred approach to refugees, and ignorance and arrogance is our preferred approach to our region, as the Robben (sorry, Manus) Island refugees won’t be coming to Australia, we can also be less afraid of training and educating and employing them (and the equally poor locals) in suitable industry.

    Just remember, too, that many of the problems and choices we face in our region apply equally to our choices in dealing with the entrenched problems of Aboriginal Australia.

    In Australia, governmental support for making use of opportunities (such as R&D, financing, training, or even a government trading enterprise such as a small shipping line) is strongly opposed, in truth because it will often expose the incompetence and preference for speculations of profit-seekers. In Oceania, governmental support for making use of opportunities is greatly limited by the limited scale of operation, corruption, a poor education, and local land or clan rights.

    Opportunities exist in, for instance, aquaculture, such as with gold-spot cod aquaculture. Seaweed cultivation is cost-effective and uses low technology, while dried seaweed can be preserved for up to six months. Vanilla is a promising crop, being suitable for cultivation by smallholders and having a ready world market. Papaya could become a major industry. Yet, not surprisingly, there is little evidence-based (i.e. properly researched) knowledge of production, harvest and postharvest issues. There, like here, it requires imagination. R&D is so important, but so poorly funded.

    Granted, many haters will want brutality on principle, regardless of the cost of detention (except as a useful excuse for complaint). Good, progressive policy being adopted anywhere risks the adoption of such policies in Australia.

  19. TED B

    Hold On right there, This so called solution was set up in the dying days of the Labour Party, Yes!!! the Labour Party, how can these people in the left of Politicas now get up and scream blue murder for somthing they set up???? Scott Morrison for PM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Ted B

  20. rhwombat

    Ted B, you have a diseased soul.

  21. klewso

    It wasn’t right then, it isn’t right now.

  22. Chris Hartwell

    Too many think Machiavelli was being sincere when he penned “The Prince” or that the subsequent bastardisation (where “One must consider the final result” has become “The ends justify the means”) is actually sound moral advice, based on comments some make here.

  23. Glen

    A patronising and surprisingly ignorant assessment of our closest neighbour, Guy. That even the intelligent and informed here know so little of its many complexities is an indictment.

    Here’s a thought. I’ve actually visited a PNG asylum seeker camp — one run entirely by Papua New Guineans — with tents, desperate people, guards, the full caboodle. That was 25 years ago in a little place called Telefomin, and the people were refugees from Indonesian Jayapura. Perhaps the challenges involved may not be quite as foreign to Papua New Guineans as you assume.

  24. R. Ambrose Raven

    A patronising and surprisingly ignorant assessment of the rest of us, Glen. Here’s a thought. You MAY have actually visited a PNG asylum seeker camp (5 minutes, ten, or perhaps even 20 min?) but you appear to have nothing to offer from the experience bar patronising views.

    Glen, have you even read the government advisory on PNG? Let’s start with a nice juicy bit:
    ““ – Ethnic disputes continue to flare up around the country. Disputes can quickly escalate into violent clashes. Such clashes not only create danger within the immediate area but also promote a general atmosphere of lawlessness, with an associated increase in opportunistic crime.
    – We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Papua New Guinea because of the high levels of serious crime.
    – Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media for information about possible new safety or security risks.
    – Crime rates are high, particularly in the capital Port Moresby and in Lae, Mt Hagen and other parts of the Highland provinces.
    – Local authorities have advised of a heightened risk of armed robbery and attack at well-attended shopping centres in urban areas, including Port Moresby.
    – Large crowds and public gatherings should be avoided as they may turn violent.
    – Car-jacking is an ever-present threat, particularly in Port Moresby and Lae. Car doors should be locked with windows up at all times and caution should be taken when travelling after dark. In the evening or at night, we recommend you travel in a convoy.
    – There has been an increase in reported incidents of sexual assault, including gang rape, and foreigners have been targeted.”

    Just the place to send people we don’t want. Once, it was Van Diemen’s Land, or Norfolk Island.


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