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 …

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW