IN ITS report for 2015, Human Rights Watch lists the financial inducements offered by the Australian government to make the Manus Island deal happen.
“Australia remains [PNG]’s most important international partner,” it explains, “providing an estimated US$460m in development assistance for 2013-2014. Australia provided an additional $556.7m this financial year to support the Manus Island detention center.”
But O’Neill also possessed his own reasons for signing the deal.
In 2011, the PNG supreme court ordered him to stand down in favour of Michael Somare, an order with which he simply refused to comply.
The agreement with Australia, the regional power, thus provided him with international legitimacy. By promising to deliver refugee resettlement (a plan that was, right from the outset, unpopular in PNG, O’Neill made himself indispensable to Canberra, on the basis of the “he-might-be-a-son-of-a-bitch-but-he’s-our-son-of-a-bitch” principle so beloved of US presidents).
There was no secret about what that meant. A few days after shaking Rudd’s hand, O’Neill boasted that he’d achieved what he called “a realignment” of Australian aid in PNG.
Since then, Professor Jason Sharman, a money laundering expert at Griffith University, has repeatedly warned that Canberra has privileged the maintenance of the detention centre over the fight against corruption.
“The government sends signals,” he told the Guardian, “often reflecting media attention, as to what it wants investigated.
“Various people have flagged PNG corruption proceeds in Australia as a problem, not least elements of the PNG government and law enforcement as well as the AFP and Austrac, but the Australian government under both Labor and the Coalition has chosen not to investigate, and recently Manus has been a big reason for inaction.”
Two years ago, anti-corruption police issued a warrant to arrest the prime minister over a million-dollar fraud involving the company Paraka Lawyers. O’Neill responded by disbanding the corruption taskforce and installing his own handpicked police chief.
Last week’s student demonstration was part of an anti-corruption campaign, seeking to force O’Neill to comply with basic democratic principles.
But the vicious brutality of the PNG police has a context, too – and, again, the links to Australia are telling.
The Manus Island deal entailed a contingent of Australian Federal Police officers training the Royal PNG Constabulary (RPNGC). In late 2015, an AFP whistleblower told the ABC that the Australian government was turning a blind eye to the corruption and police involvement in extra-judicial killings, for fear that the detention centre might be closed.
“The RPNGC were essentially murdering people, raping people, burning villages down,” he said. He’d seen local police commit horrific crimes, he explained, but his reports had been ignored by his superiors.
“What we soon noticed was that anything that painted the government of PNG with corruption, or the RPNGC with their brutality, murder and rape was being sanitised,” he said. The AFP said it had reviewed reports from the officer and hadn’t found any matters requiring further action.
It’s not simply that successive Australian governments, keen to keep the Manus deal alive, do not want to antagonise the PNG government. It’s worse than that.
In the final analysis, the Australian facility on Manus Island relies on coercion to keep asylum seekers detained. That’s why, ever since it opened, it has built a relationship with the most notorious of the PNG police units.
In 2013, for instance, Rory Callinan reported:
Papua New Guinea’s most thuggish paramilitary police unit – allegedly responsible for rapes, murders and other serious human rights abuses – is being discreetly funded by the Australian Immigration Department to secure the Manus Island asylum seeker detention centre. The ‘Mobile Squad’ officers, who just last month beat a local man to death on the island, are receiving a special living-away allowance of about $100 a day from funding provided by the department.
In February 2014, when detainees began to protest, the Mobile Squad played an important role in quelling the demonstration. As Human Rights Watch explains:
During the incident, many detainees sustained injuries and one detainee was beaten to death. Police allegedly entered firing their guns when violence broke out inside the facility.
This is not an anomaly. Rather, it’s an illustration of how an Australian program that’s only possible because of the weaknesses of a post-colonial society continues to exacerbate those weaknesses.
Think, for instance, of the secrecy endemic in the refugee policy. On Tuesday, Mathias Cormann boasted that barring journalists from the detention centres was a necessary element of the program’s success. What effect does that have on a country like PNG where, as Freedom House says, press freedom has been eroding in recent years?
Or what about the rule of the law? After the supreme court ruled the detention centre to be illegal, O’Neill agreed that it should be closed – a welcome adherence to the separation of powers by a politician with a dubious record of obeying such rulings. But, as Daniel Flitton recently wrote, “the Turnbull government looks to have persuaded PNG to keep the camp open until after the Australian election”.
In other words, in the context of the struggle taking place between students risking their lives to uphold democratic principles and a regime willing to flout the courts, the Turnbull government has … “persuaded” PNG to delay implementation of a supreme court ruling.