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Morrison's law of intended consequences

  • 21 February 2014

The news from Manus Island is dreadful. We know that at least one asylum seeker has died as a result of injuries sustained in disturbances over the past three days. Many asylum seekers have been wounded, some seriously, in reported gunshot, club or knife wounds.

There is still much we do not know. We do not know if these deaths and injuries were sustained within the perimeter wire i.e. on Australian-administered camp territory, or outside the wire i.e., on PNG sovereign territory. We do not know if asylum seekers had voluntarily left the Australian-run compound, or demonstrated (or rioted) within it; we do not know if the compound was then invaded by angry or out-of-control PNG police or security forces, and if asylum seekers then fled the compound trying to escape attacks by armed men.

There is the official story so far, as told by Scott Morrison, and the unofficial counter-story as told by Ian Rintoul of the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition, based on many telephoned reports by detainees. They are very different stories.

There are two official enquiries announced so far: an Australian Immigration Department enquiry, and a PNG Government enquiry. Labor has called for an independent enquiry. Labor should therefore support Gillian Triggs (Director of the Australian Human Rights Commission) in her reasonable call for access to the site and to witnesses, to enable her to prepare a thorough independent enquiry. If the two governments have nothing to hide, they should promptly grant Triggs' request for access.

Whatever story or stories emerge as to how the violence and deaths happened, there is the underlying basic question; did the Australian Government violate its duty of care, by sending to a detention centre in a poorly-policed foreign country people who had arrived in Australian waters and made asylum claims there under the Refugee Conventions? Many decent Australians would contend that it did.

Whatever bad things have happened at Curtin, Woomera, Baxter, Maribynong and Villawood detention centres, these places were or are subject to Australian law and public accountability safeguards. The truth usually eventually comes out. Manus is not, or very imperfectly. Cover-up of atrocity is a lot easier in Manus than it would be in an Australian detention centre.

And this of course is what was intended. Manus is part of the asylum-seeker deterrent system. The fear of death at sea, and the fear of death by security force brutalisation at Manus, are intended to deter