Time for Labor to disown PNG solution

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Manus Island regional processing facility, Papua New GuineaAll the news out of Manus over the past week confirms Moira Rayner's and my own grave forebodings.

Morrison's initial statement on 17 February that detainees had broken out of the Australian-run detention centre overnight, and that one death had occurred outside the centre, were found to be false, a fact finally admitted by him on 24 February.

Three important pieces of independent reporting from persons connected with Immigration or the now-ended G4S management operation between 21 and 26 February paint a consistent, grim picture: of disturbances that G4S had predicted, if asylum seekers were given bad news on the failure to process their refugee applications; of G4S's failure to control the ensuing events; and of the PNG government failure to control its own police and public surrounding the centre.

These sources are: the transcript of former interpreter Azita Bokan's interview with Richard Glover, ABC Sydney on 21 February; Mark Davis' interview on SBS Dateline program on 25 February with former migration agent Liz Thompson, who denounces interview process on Manus as a 'farce' and 'charade'; and Tara Moss' compelling account on 26 February 'Manus Island — an insider's report' from a trusted G4S source.

Over the past week of Parliament, we have seen the strange and distressing spectacle of Labor timidly criticising the Government's handling of the issue. It would have been the perfect opportunity for Labor, proceeding from these very disturbing revelations, to decide and announce a change in policy: to say that Kevin Rudd's PNG solution had now been found unsustainable, that Australia cannot persist with a PNG-based deterrence system that leaves people to be killed in uncontrolled armed attacks on an Australian detention centre that cannot be protected by Australia, and that Australia cannot therefore meet its duty of care at Manus.

Labor could be saying, 'We would have preferred an orderly regional burden-sharing and processing solution, and as a step towards that we tried to mount a Malaysia solution, but we were blocked from that by the Opposition and Greens. We see now that the PNG solution is just too dangerous to support any longer. Manus must close, and detention and processing centres in Australia must reopen. The present numbers of detainees allow this to be done, and it should be done before more people die.'

This would be the moral policy for Labor at this point. Decent people in the community would support it. The tragic death of Reza Barati provides sufficient trigger for the policy change, if Labor is brave enough to make it. If not, we will continue to see Labor leaders Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek standing shoulder to shoulder on the Manus issue with Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Janet Albrechtsen. Not, I think, a good place for Labor.

Both Plibersek and Albrechtsen are reported to the effect that one death at Manus is less awful than hundreds of deaths at sea. Albrechtsen drew the explicit comparison with 1100 deaths at sea under Labor.

But there is an important distinction to be made here. The deaths at sea under Labor — a matter on which I have written extensively — were not the clearly foreseen outcome of a deliberately harsh and dangerous offshore deterrence regime, but a result of policy irresolution and conflicting signals to the border protection agencies. As I wrote in my 20 February article:

Labor's problem — and we see it again in its first responses to the awful news from Manus — is that it is neither principled enough nor brutal enough. It suffers from conflicting objectives: in government it wanted to deter, but to stay within the law and decency as far as possible. So it sent mixed policy messages to the Border Protection Command, ADF, and Australian Maritime Safety Authority ...

The Coalition's message is brutal and clear: we will stop the boats. To do this we will break international maritime and refugee laws, jeopardise Australia's relations with Indonesia, and stand at arm's length and watch as major avoidable violence and human rights abuses take place in PNG. Because all this bad stuff reinforces the deterrent message we are utterly determined to keep sending.

By endorsing the continued operation of Manus after the death of Barati, Labor leaves itself complicit in the Coalition's brutal, deliberately violence-provoking, deterrence policy. It leaves itself with nothing useful to say.

There is an alternative. Labor can continue to support strong non-lethal deterrence. It can, if it wishes, support OSB's present towback policies, using giveaway lifeboats to preserve lives of people who are forced back: illegally in my view, a view shared by a growing number of Australian legal experts, but at least it can be said that under the Coalition's five months of turnback, hardly any lives have been lost.

Would closure of Manus and reopening of detention centres in mainland Australia provoke an upsurge in asylum seekers paying people smugglers to make the voyage? My immediate answer would be no, because OSB's turnback policies are working to deter voyages. Labor could craft a position that essentially supports present OSB turnback practice, but rejects the murderous status quo in Manus.

If Labor does not make this policy change now, it will be supporting an Abbott-Morrison policy of knowingly goading desperate people into rioting, knowing that they will die as a result of uncontrolled PNG police and public responses that neither our Immigration Department nor its management contractors can control. It would be maintaining a bipartisan policy complicit in the killing of people whom we have a duty of care to protect.

To conclude: Dinesh Perera, a former Sri Lankan army officer involved in the suppression of the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka, was in charge of the centre at the time of the riot. It is possible that he was the source of the initial false advice to Morrison that the rioting, injuries and death had taken place outside the centre. Fortunately, there was enough independent reporting to force Morrison to correct his initial statement. Yet Perera has been reappointed head of Manus by the incoming management contractor, Transfield. And Labor, under its present policies of supporting the Manus model, cannot question this.

There is still time for Shorten to change Labor policy.


Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, PNG, Manus Island, asylum seekers, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison


 

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Existing comments

Tony, why are you now whining about the illegal Malaysia human trading deal, it was always illegal. And the ridiculous notion that we alone in the world can manage an orderly refugee movement is just more deranged racism. Enough already. All we have to do is uphold all 36 articles of the refugee convention and other human rights conventions without this continual belief that we can shove refugees off to other places or trade them to other nations. It does not save lives. And we have to uphold the legal right for anyone to sail anywhere they choose because it effects us all if we don't.
Marilyn | 27 February 2014


"... a fact FINALLY ADMITTED by him on 24 February." (emph. HH) Twisting words, Tony Kevin? Try "finally confirmed". Oh, but that would look better for Scott Morrison, but much worse for your account, eh? Fact: Scott Morrison on the 18 Feb (the day after the tragedy the late night before) said: "...AT THIS STAGE it is not possible to give any further detail on that, including now, based on subsequent reports, WHERE this may have taken place." Yet the Left persists in making assertions which are, on the internet, so rapidly able to be found untrue ...
HH | 27 February 2014


Tony Kevin's solution is not achievable in today's political atmosphere. What is possible is for us to fully fund Manus and Nauru, but let UNHCR control it and the settlement process. Genuine refugees could then be accepted here under strict supervision. Each should work for the dole in places to which we assign them. They should be bonded to this labour for 3 years and receive Citizenship classes including English language. Passports should be suspended until they accept citizenship. The citizenship oath ought to include, for Muslims, a renunciation of Sharia law. Our Constitution should also denounce Sharia law. These reforms would solve the problem.
Harry Spratt | 28 February 2014


It would appear time to close Manus and return to onshore processing. As you and others, who may not agree with your overall analysis, say OSB could continue. This whole refugee issue is a complicated one and I think the average Australian voter is completely confused about what is involved. Simplistic solutions do not appear to work. Scott Morrison appears to have passed his use by date, but, like his colleague Kevin Andrews, who was responsible for the debacle of the Haneef affair, will no doubt continue in office. We desperately need more competent politicians.
Edward F | 28 February 2014


I agree 100% with Tony Kevin that Labor should disown the PNG solution along the lines he suggests. It would be the moral policy for Labor at this point but Labor sadly now places much more emphasis on strategic than "moral". Sadly I fear that we will continue to see Labor leaders Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek standing shoulder to shoulder on the Manus issue with Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Janet Albrechtsen on this issue. Not a good look for anyone!.
Peter Hanley | 28 February 2014


The most stupid thing Labor could do would be to repeat the Rudd-Brown policies to support the people smuggling industry. Labor has become a far more respectable political organisation and its current policy to stop tragedies at sea is supported by the fast majority of good Australians. Only evil greedy manipulative people would try to change the current policies. One of the main reason for Labor to lose the last election was Kevin Rudd. People did not trust him and they knew how many people died because of his disastrous policies.
Beat Odermatt | 28 February 2014


Tony Kevin's proposal should be considered by Labor because it meets the moral, political and economic outcomes that a political decision must embrace. Abbott's 'stop the boats' fails on all three counts. It continues Howard's 'we will decide who comes to this country' ethos, it is a policy that secured Abbott's victory and is now being used to extremes to maintain it, and is proving costly to maintain it. Failure of labor to address this bankrupt policy means it will continue to be a shadow of the Liberal's policy. It will continue to be a 'Labor tweedledee to the Liberal's inhumane tweedledum'.
Reg Wilding | 28 February 2014


Not practical.
angela | 28 February 2014


There seems to be this idea in Australia that the refugee convention is a toy simply for us to play with instead of a legally binding international treaty to protect the victims of persecution that was co-authored by Australia. It is very simple, the only time it becomes complicated is when we try to ignore it.
Marilyn | 28 February 2014


Hugh H (always love the chant, Hugh) and Beat continue to follow the script of the day put out before dawn by the focus group. Same old mantras. Get an independent reflexive thought chaps, It could be novel, refreshing and even liberating.
David Timbs | 28 February 2014


By their bias, Tony Kevin, Moira Rayner and many other Authors of Eureka Street sadly send the wrong message to many Catholics. Reading the articles published daily, one would think that Jesuits are Anti-liberal/National parties and Pro-Labor and pro-Greens. Yet this is not true, there are many Jesuit priests who are very good and loyal Catholics, Our Holy Father is Jesuit and all Catholics love Francis. I think the time has come to balance the authors' political views.
Ron Cini | 28 February 2014


\Labor leaders would no sooner say "Kevin Rudd's PNG solution had been found unsustainable" as they would admit all their policies and initiatives marked the abject failure of an incompetent and untrustworthy government.. Mr kevin, why don't you finally admit that/
Bill Barry | 28 February 2014


A telling reflection, Tony. Labor must act with integrity.It's time!
vivien | 28 February 2014


How on earth was a Sri Lankan officer who was involved in the suppression of the Tamil Independence movement appointed be in charge of the Manus detention centre? What are the criteria for this position?
Joanna Elliott | 28 February 2014


Ron Cini: there is no "wrong message" to ANY Catholics. If you can out forward an alternative argument which can actually hold water, then go for it.
Name | 28 February 2014


Just produce evidence that Morrison didn't say "...AT THIS STAGE it is not possible to give any further detail on that, including now, based on subsequent reports, WHERE this may have taken place." (www.minister.immi.gov.au/media/sm/2014/sm211891.htm) on the 18th Feb, David Timbs. If you can't, Tony Kevin, Valiant-For-Justice, needs to recant his gratuitously offensive implication re. Morrison, and the ad. hom. interference you run is to no avail. Simple as that.
HH | 28 February 2014


Get some guts, Bill Shorten!. Unless you repudiate the whole solution of Manus and Nauru, you are entirely complicit with the present LNP. I have voted Labor all my life - but not last time because of Kevin Rudd's atrocious policy. And you have lost me already because of your lack of guts on this issue.
Roy O'Neill | 28 February 2014


Absolutley agree. I am writing to my local (Labor) MP today to argue the case. Forget the political feasability: be moral and upright and honor the great ALP tradition.
Robert Glass | 02 March 2014


Beat Odermann is right. The Abbott government has saved an untold number of lives by stopping the boats
Bill Barry | 02 March 2014


The only real answer to the refugee issue is to get at the source of the movement of asylum seekers which is the Middle East ,Asia and Africa. Genuine Asylum seekers should be able to apply through official channels, be processed. Australia and other resettlement nations should increase their intake of refugees. This is the only way to put people smugglers out of business.
john Ozanne | 05 March 2014


North Korea, Iran, and now Australia all ignore UN agreements and international law, I'm so proud to be Australian
David Wright | 05 March 2014


YES! Please.
Val | 13 March 2014


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