The depths of common cause between Australia and Nauru


Nauru aerial image Nauru is a small country, heavily reliant on aid from Australia and New Zealand. To Australia, whose government and opposition have been tirelessly highlighting the dangers inherent in uncontrolled rights to citizenship, judicial decision-making and freedom of expression – and has recently made great progress in curbing or blunting these in a number of areas – this smaller island nation represents a shining example of the exciting possibilities open to a government willing to combat these liberal evils in the service of staying in power at all costs.

In 2014, following a series of court decisions against the Government in this tiny country whose (phosphate) mining boom has long since come and gone into the hands of big businesses and overseas powers, the resident magistrate and non-resident Chief Justice were removed from office (and, in the Chief Justice’s case, expelled), leaving Government-trained lawyers as the only lawyers on the island. (Overseas lawyers who have sought to come to Nauru to help fight the Government in court have had their visas denied.)

In an impressive demonstration of how the revocation of citizenship can be made to work to defend the national reputation and lifestyle of a country against those who would wish it harm, five of the country’s seven opposition MPs (in a 19 member Parliament) have had their passports cancelled for 'damaging the reputation and development of the country'. In Australia, at least for the moment, damaging of Government property will still be required for the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection to revoke citizenship under the new anti-terror provisions in s.35A of the Citizenship Act. (At least one lawyer has, however, pointed out that blowing the whistle on embarrassing intelligence operations would also probably be a good way to lose your Australian passport under the new legislation.)

All of the five Nauruan MPs who have had their passports suspended have also been expelled from Parliament indefinitely (leaving their seats vacant for over a year now) and three of them have since been arrested without bail for protesting against what they see as the Government’s heavy handed policies. This degree of enthusiastically political policing has not yet happened in Australia although, as we were reminded this week, three opposition leaders – including two former Prime Ministers – have been subpoenaed to appear before a Royal Commission established by the new Government which, like its Nauruan counterpart, was elected in 2013. (The New Zealand Government, while of course, part of the Five Eyes universal bugging programme, has so far signally failed to enact any reprisals against its political opponents.)

Unfortunately, despite all the evidence of Nauru’s progress in combating the scourge of civil and political rights in two short years, the New Zealand Government has raised concerns about the rule of law in that country. The NZ Government has so far funded Nauru’s Department of Justice and Border Control to the tune of $1.2m per year and contributed about another 1.1m to the country’s education system. Following a unanimous motion in the New Zealand Parliament last week expressing concern at the situation on Nauru, intense pressure from the New Zealand Law Society and an open letter from some of the country’s leading constitutional and human rights lawyers (including former PM Geoffrey Palmer), NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully has (somewhat reluctantly) indicated that he expects to see some improvement before disbursing further aid to Nauru. (New Zealand has not gone on record with any discussion of Australia’s adherence to the rule of law although the US-based World Justice Project ranks Australia 10th in the world for rule of law, four places behind New Zealand and down from seventh place in 2013 and eighth last year. Statistics for Nauru are not given.)

Radio New Zealand, a public broadcaster, even had the temerity to allow Professor Claudia Geiringer, Professor of Public Law at Victoria University of Wellington (and a leading proponent of human rights) to suggest that Australia’s ability to convert its status as the largest aid donor to Nauru was 'very compromised' by the fact that it funds a detention centre on the island. She also requested that New Zealand withdraw funding from Nauru, even if there may have been pressure to the contrary from Australia.

Radio NZ has form in allowing such dangerous ideas on air. On a number of occasions, they even interviewed Tame Iti, a Maori activist and artist who (like Zaky Mallah) was acquitted of terrorism charges but convicted of far lesser offences. The National Government in New Zealand is not overly fond of Radio NZ. It has slashed the national broadcaster’s funding by around 9% in five years. At the time of writing, however, Radio NZ heads have not rolled for interviewing Iti, nor indeed for allowing Geiringer to express such tendentious views on a prominent news programme. To my knowledge, no enquiries been launched.

New Zealand is, of course, a far smaller player in the region than Australia. In the light of Nauru’s example, however, scrutiny of its failure to live down to its neighbours’ human rights standards is long overdue.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is a student for the priesthood who has practised law in South Africa and New Zealand after gaining his PhD in administrative and international law.

Nauru image from Wikimedia Commons

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Nauru, citizenship, immigration, border protection, international law



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Existing comments

Thanks, Justin. There are important and challenging issues involved here, including the relationship between development cooperation and human rights breaches by a partner government; the relationship between Nauru’s hosting of Australian refugee facilities and Australia’s financial and other support for Nauru; and Australia’s historical obligations to Nauru. I look forward to continued focus on them.
Denis Fitzgerald | 14 July 2015

A "shot over the bows" Justin. Thanks for sharing your insights . Sadly I suspect we are far too complacent in Australia . Apart from some minor uprisings (eg, Eureka) , we seem to think "she be right mate". I find the situation on Nauru, PNG and even here at Federal level to be cause for concern and very disturbing. The attempts to muzzle the ABC's independence and other "Captain's Picks" by Tony Abbott should be a huge concern for those of us who have experienced repressive regimes overseas. Democracy will only survive as long as we remain vigilant .
Gavin O'Brien | 14 July 2015

Thanks for the clear-sightedness of your comments Justin, and the accurate information you present and make clear we need to 'take on board', not just as some piece of theory, but an invitation to us, here in Oz, [God's] lucky country, to become activists, and to find ways to join up with others with similar convictions and wish-to-act, to make our voice heard, like that little girl in the ad' on schoolyard bullies, for those who can;t have theris heard. Thanks, too, for an article already available to me today - written for the Conference of leaders of Religious Institutes, which treads us into similar ground: 'A theological reflection on the situation of refugees and asylum seekers'. Keep us aware, then we need to saty committed, and act - as they say in italy 'pronto'!. LG
Lynne Green | 14 July 2015


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