Dying Democracy
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Australia 'tarnished' Manus; military base unwelcome: Benjamin

Manus governor Charlie Benjamin (Mike Bowers)
Manus governor Charlie Benjamin (Mike Bowers)

HELEN DAVIDSON | Guardian Australia

CANBERRA - The Australian and Papua New Guinean governments have failed the people of Manus Island, who did Australia a favour in hosting its offshore immigration centre only to be left with “bad memories” and no infrastructure, the province’s governor has said.

Charlie Benjamin, who joined PNG prime minister James Marape for an official visit to Australia last week, also opposed the forthcoming joint US-Australia military base, chiefly because of the way Australia treated Manus Island over the past six years.

“The enormity and importance of this program to Australia – stopping the boat people – was very successful,” he told Guardian Australia in an exclusive interview.

“And I thought Australia would be even more grateful to us, and would have given a lot more, because this is nothing compared to the assistance they should be able to give us.”

Benjamin, who has served as a Manus MP since 1997 and as governor since 2012, called for the Australian government to stop waiting for another third country option – since it will not accept New Zealand’s offer.

“If Australia is not able to find a third country able to settle them, then they have no choice – you have to bring them to Australia,” he said.

Once peaceful and picturesque, with untapped tourism potential, the name Manus Island is now synonymous with arbitrary detention and human rights abuses. The billions of dollars spent by Australia have brought little permanent improvements or infrastructure to Manus Island.

Benjamin said he and his constituents were never consulted about the establishment of Australia’s offshore processing regime, and have been left with nothing but “bad memories”.

“Yes we have received some assistance but I think they are not close to what the people of Manus expected given the social problems we are now facing, considering the name of the province has been tarnished in the world as people who are not good people.”

Australia has given an estimated K50 million a month to Pacific International Hospital to run a clinic exclusively for refugees, only for the clinic to be accused of working limited hours and sending patients to the desperately under-resourced local hospital.

“If [Australia] had only built a K100 million kina hospital, we wouldn’t have all of these problems,” Benjamin said. “I think that is where Australia failed. It could have been a legacy.”

Benjamin said he and the people of Manus had done “all we could do” to help the refugees and asylum seekers, and accusations the men were mistreated was an “injustice”.

“I feel for them, because they have families back home, they want to know what their future will be so they can bring the families back with them,” he said.

“I think the sooner that is done is better. It is affecting some of them mentally.

“The only reason they say their life in Manus is not good is simply that it’s not the end of their journey.

“They want to complete their journey and if they say the place is good then Australia might not act fast to move them out of Manus.”

In a press conference earlier in the week, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said he had assured Benjamin he would work closely with PNG to resolve the problems but also said there was no detention centre on Manus anymore.

Morrison’s claim is true – the detention centre itself was closed at the end of 2017 – however more than 130 men are still housed on Manus in accommodation blocks that are under guard and subjected to 12-hour curfews.

Benjamin said Manusians had suffered even worse, and this had gone unrecognised.

He reiterated concerns about refugees who have had children with local women and then left, and said the presence of the detention centre, detainees and staff had brought increased drinking and drugs to Manus.

It is partly for these reasons Benjamin opposes the establishment of a US-Australia military base, another decision he said was made without the consultation or involvement of Manus people.

“That’s a problem I have to deal with, and it disappoints me the Australia and Papua New Guinea did not see this as a big problem,” he said. “We are not given enough help to deal with all of this.

 “So when they come and say, ‘We want to build a military base in Manus’, I say ‘I already have experience with you Australians, dealing with asylum seekers, and my people were left out’. I don’t want our people to be left out again with this military exercise.”

He said the base was clearly of benefit to Australia and the US and in response to the growing influence of China in the region.

“That has to come at a price,” he said. “You can’t just come in and expect me to welcome you, and face all the social problems, while your people are safe in Australia and America.

“If there is a war we are the first ones to face the missiles and you will be safe in your country.”

Australia recently renewed its contract with the controversial service provider Paladin, bringing the total expenditure on the company to more than $530 million.

The PNG government has long sought to take over the lucrative contracts from the Australian government, and recently both nations agreed this would happen in six months.

Benjamin said he preferred to see the entire program come to a conclusion before then but otherwise wanted the contracts given to the provincial government business arm.

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