IN early 2013, when Australia’s incumbent Labor government was busily self-destructing and it looked certain the Liberals would win the upcoming election, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, was anxiously trying to contact opposition leader Tony Abbott to arrange a meeting in Port Moresby.
Abbott was happy to travel to PNG to talk to O’Neill but was firmly under the thumb of his micro-managing chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and she forbade it.
The opposition leader had been hammering the Australian public with simplistic slogans, including his moronic ‘Stop the Boats’. Apparently this is what O’Neill wanted to talk to him about.
For a range of unspecified considerations, O’Neill was offering to reinstate John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ and open up the Manus Island detention centre again.
It was a missed opportunity for Abbott because, after Kevin Rudd toppled his nemesis Julia Gillard in June 2013, he announced he had done a deal with O’Neill to re-open the detention centre.*
We don’t know the terms of that deal but, when Abbott defeated Rudd, he accepted the terms of that deal and got even tougher on the hapless asylum seekers.
Since the Manus deal Australia has turned a blind eye to O’Neill’s erratic government and the abrogation of its laws. There has been no hint of any criticism.
Malcolm Turnbull, desperate to get rid of asylum seekers on Manus, is now doing likewise with President Trump.
If the story is true, it’s interesting that O’Neill initially tried to contact the leader of the opposition rather than the then prime minister. Presumably he had concluded Abbott would be the softer touch.
Or perhaps he preferred Abbott’s simplistic conservative politics to Labor’s progressive politics. In any event, it is an indication of how O’Neill thinks, cuddling up to potential winners.
So was the Manus Island gulag really O’Neill’s idea? Using the desperate situation of vulnerable and traumatised people to further his own ends didn’t seem to bother him, or Rudd and Abbott for that matter.
And O’Neill didn’t bother to think the deal through to what unintended consequences it might throw up. It was a potentially profitable deal and that’s as far as he went.
O’Neill apparently didn’t even check to see whether it was legal under Papua New Guinea’s constitution.
That came later when the Supreme Court ruled the existence of the gulag was unconstitutional.
O’Neill made all the appropriate noises at this revelation but strangely the detention centre hasn’t closed down.
All that has happened is that asylum seekers have been allowed to wander the streets of Lorengau and create more problems for the locals, not, I stress, that this is their intention - it just happens.
One wonders what sort of other deals O’Neill has made under the table with the shifty Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton and his minions. Perhaps one day we’ll find out.
It is a very sad phase in Australia’s history and has done irreparable damage to our reputation as an egalitarian and caring society.
Meanwhile O’Neill is presumably gloating and wondering what other shonky deals he can do to stitch up his re-election this year.
* Niki Savva, The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government, Scribe, 2016, page 44