DANIEL FLITTON | The Age
AUSTRALIA gets far more foreign aid than any other country in the Pacific. That's right, Australia gets, not gives.
This type of aid isn't measured as emergency food supplies after a terrible cyclone, or in dollars and cents to build bridges and schools. No, what Australia depends upon from overseas is something far more valuable - the grant of legal impunity.
That is the essence of the Pacific solution for asylum seekers. But it doesn't come without a cost.
That cost has been exposed in recent days by Australia's shameful silence about a crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Nauru, and complications in an ugly diplomatic barney with Papua New Guinea over who-said-what-and-when about opening a new diplomatic post on the island of Bougainville.
Before we get to these specific controversies, we need to step back to understand the position of weakness in which Australia has put itself. These two nations give aid to Australia by allowing the processing of asylum seeker claims offshore.
In fact, "rented" is probably a more apt description, with national sovereignty traded as a currency. Australia pays for the detention camps on their territory, but can disavow any formal responsibility for how they are run.
"We are doing everything we can to help the governments of Nauru and PNG to run good centres," Tony Abbott told reporters last week, after being confronted by the latest claims of abuses, "and in the end it is the responsibility of the governments of Nauru and PNG to maintain order in these centres".
By the letter of the law, Abbott is correct. But the issue here goes far beyond the treatment of asylum seekers. The character of Australia's foreign policy has been compromised.
Values that Australia should typically be expected to support in the neighbourhood, such as free speech or good government, have been willfully ignored. The aid recipient must be careful not to bite the feeding hand.
So in the past year, Australia has remained silent as Nauru's leaders have adopted ever more blatant measures to suppress political opposition at home. Refugee activists tend to focus on asylum seekers, but the real damage is for the people of Nauru.
The United States took aim this month at Nauru's latest regressive step, a decision to ban access to Facebook in the country. "Freedom of expression online and offline is essential to a healthy democracy," the State Department declared, calling for the restrictions to be lifted.
But from Australia, not even a murmur of concern. "Any internet restrictions in Nauru are a matter for the government of Nauru," is the glib response.
Nauru's government argues the censorship is about stopping access to pornography, a claim that stretches credibility given the dark reaches of the internet lie far beyond social media. Facebook was a popular way of sharing information across the tiny community and with Nauruans off the island - including, not insignificantly, criticism of the government.
When I was reporting from Nauru in 2013, the government censored local television, preventing an interview recorded with the opposition leader from going to air, arguing it was important not to confuse the public. Since then, Nauru has introduced an $8000 fee for journalists to apply for a visa to go to the country, in effect, barring foreign media.
Last year, five opposition MPs were suspended from parliament; three of them for talking to reporters from Australia or New Zealand. You might have already guessed; the opposition MPs had been critical of the government.
These MPs were not merely ejected from the chamber. For the past year they have been refused salary or access to their phones or offices.
Nauru is tiny, 10,000 people, and proudly independent. But sovereignty should never be seen as a licence for a government to behave as it pleases. Australia cannot pretend nothing is wrong; doing so only reinforces the impression Australia is abetting the restrictions.
The problem with PNG is one of diminished influence. As long as Australia relies on the Manus Island facility, Port Moresby will always be able to confidently push back against any uncomfortable Australian advice about other parts of the country. Australia has sacrificed moral leverage at the very time tensions could easily flare into violence.
Let's be clear; Australia has no right to interfere in its closest neighbour. But the separatist conflict on Bougainville in the 1990s cost thousands of lives, saw South African mercenaries passing through northern Australia on the way to fight on the island, and helicopters donated from the Australian military armed as gunships. Peace on Bougainville is in Australia's interest, but this is an especially delicate time.
Next month, a window opens to decide whether Bougainville remains part of PNG or becomes a separate nation. It was revealed this month that Australia intends to open a new diplomatic post on Bougainville, a move the PNG government almost immediately branded "outrageous" and "mischievous" and claimed there had been insufficient consultation.
The upshot is Port Moresby has now barred Australians from travelling to Bougainville, a ban Bougainville's leaders want overturned, warning it is not in the spirit of the peace agreement.
Whatever the rights or wrongs, the episode has demonstrated the sensitivities involved. At best, Australia has been clumsy with the announcement.
But the wider lesson is timeless. Nothing in this world is given free.