Introducing Australia’s Gulag Archipelago

by Dom on May 8, 2011

There’s a bit more going on in this post than I would like, but hopefully it makes a few decent points or gets you thinking. The main point is the impact of what I have dubbed Australia’s Gulag Archipelago. I haven’t taken the time to refine or even balance it, but I will more fully develop and explain some of the threads that are contained below.

So, the Australian Government has decided to pursue not just offshore processing, but foreign detention, and the pressure is on PNG to let Canberra reopen the Manus Island detention centre. Note that it is not a processing centre , but I don’t want to get into semantics right now. I’m not even go into go deeply into the political flip-flop gymnastics; I’ll leave that to the newsroom commentators and punters in the public bar. As someone who grew up on Christmas Island, my concern relates to how this affects Manus Island, and what happens to the locals as Australia presses ahead with developing its Gulag Archipelago and continues her benign neglect of surrounding islands. They may be keen now, but what about after the centre closes? What about the problems it may cause while oopen?

There are a range of reasons the regional processing centre in Timor Leste did not go ahead, and many of the same concerns should be salient to anyone thinking about the prospect of detention and/or processing in PNG. Or anywhere else for that matter. My concerns stem from having seen what has happened on Christmas Island over the last 10 years. The changes for the community and the process for addressing arrivals were minor between the first boat people arrived on Christmas Island in the late 1980s and August 2001. The Tampa affair changed all that.

Boat arrivals (refugee or illegal fishing) on Christmas Island were something of an event, and often drew a crowd to Flying Fish Cove. It was our own cheap thrill in someone else’s misery and hope.  But the real entertainment would come at about sometime in the mid-afternoon a few days later and involved some diesel and detonation cord – more on that later. Until August 2001, the travellers were accommodated for a few days at a sports hall, a few of special constables would watch over them, some local caterers and traders got a windfall, and teenagers back from boarding school on the mainland got jobs making sandwiches, or “reffo food” as we came to call it.

There was no threat to the community, even when over the Christmas holidays one year, refugees outnumbered locals due to the exodus of islanders taking their chance to spent time off “the rock”. When you live somewhere that can be too rough for ships to dock for months on end, there is always plenty of food in storage and fresh perishables are always being flown in. That said, I have seen a pub with no beer. After the time was taken to charter a flight, they were flown to the mainland for processing. Then the boats were often blown-up a wee way off shore, if they hadn’t sunk already. This usually drew a larger crowd to the old freezing works site than had mustered at the jetty. Another cheap thrill for a kid, but I digress…

Post-Tampa, things changed a bit. Suddenly there was many more government people on-island. The Royal Australian Navy started sitting off-shore. Rents increased a little. The two-year-tourists who often performed the roles of teaching and policing began to look comparatively permanent in relation to the DIAC and other staff. Hopes of locals getting employed by the Commonwealth rose as the first camp was built by the Cricket Club, but these jobs didn’t eventuate. Not for locals anyway. Instead, the revolving door of fly-in fly-out workers began spinning faster. Sailors on shore leave became seen primarily as a source of conflict rather than income. Likewise for staff more directly associated with the detention centre. Since the development of further facilities, these growing pains have multiplied and become more acute, similar to many mining towns on the mainland. While the Opposition leader may have been well received by the short-termers recently, there was no mention of how the locals felt. Why? Because they are sick of politicking from Canberra further messing with their home. They have news and politician apathy, with good reason.

So, what will things be like in a rural region of a developing country? How will this affect PNG as it extracts more largess form Australia in exchange for access to Manus Island? My guess is probably not well, but the mainland doesn’t really care too much about those living on the ring of islands surrounding it, especially those to the north of 23.5 degrees south, be they domestic or not. We’ll watch tis space and hope for some better outcomes.

Questions, comments, thoughts, retorts?

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