The reputational cost of the asylum seeker deal

The first I knew of the asylum seeker deal was at midday on Friday, when I got an email from the ABC’s PNG correspondent cancelling his farewell BBQ that night and obscurely telling everyone to ‘blame Kevin’.  For an expat party to be cancelled only hours before kicking off was unusual.  Something big was going down.

Sharp Talk, PNG’s leading political discussion forum, shed a bit more light.  A Manus Island politician wrote that caucus was told that morning that the existing detention centre on Manus Island would be expanded to hold 3,000 asylum seekers.  At this time, PM O’Neill was already en route from Port Moresby to Brisbane.  He was collected from the airport by PM Kevin Rudd and taken straight to the press conference to announce the Regional Resettlement Arrangement and sign the paperwork.  And that was that.  We had a new deal.

Judging from the reactions from my friends and family in Australia, and my colleagues and friends in PNG, it seems like the reaction is pretty much universal.  There is so much to be said – about the lack of consultation; the legal and human rights consequences;the whole sinister language that has become second-nature when talking about asylum seekers; the practicalities of expanding the capacity of a barely functional detention centre from 146 people to 3,000, immediately; whether Australians can still call itself a compassionate country and sing the second verse of the National Anthem, that for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share with a straight face; whether the Sunday Chronicle’s headline ‘Ruddiculous!’ puts the NT News’ screamers to shame.  But I thought I’d focus on just one angle – the portrayal of PNG in the selling of this policy.

It seems pretty obvious that the ‘strength’, in least in theory, of the policy is its deterrent value.  The ads published in every major Australian newspaper say it clear enough – if you try to come to Australia via boat, you’ll never be settled there.  Instead, you’ll go to PNG.  To make this deterrent aspect work, to ensure that no-one even tries, you have to make PNG seem as unappealing as possible, a lost cause, a place of certain ruin.  And, so the logic goes, if no-one ever tries, no boats come, and the policy is a success.

Opponents of the policy, shocked that Australia would turf its asylum seekers onto its northern neighbour, are also leaning heavily on the ‘hellhole’ narrative.  In a GetUp! mass email sent to its supporters yesterday, PNG was described as an ‘impoverished, violence-ridden state’, which has made some Papua New Guineans irate and has social commentators mouthing off at Australian ‘latte sippers’ reciting statistics without having ever been to PNG.

The general tone of discussion, as it has ventured into questioning Australia’s aid commitment to PNG and its acquittal of aid spending, has led the PNG High Commission in Canberra to Australia to issue a rare, hotly-worded (in diplomatic terms) rebuke to Australian politicians ‘to observe international protocols and courtesies when discussing relations with other friendly sovereign nations and not impugn the dignity of our leaders who are attempting to assist Australia in this very complex regional and international issue of Asylum Seekers’.

It’s no secret that Papua New Guinea has serious, systemic and entrenched problems which affect quality of life, particularly with health, education, gender-based violence and the miniscule formal work sector.  However, the majority of its citizens live on the land that they own, and have secure access to food and shelter.  If things go wrong, they have an extensive support system through their family and wantoks.  They often don’t need to engage in the cash economy because what they need is right in front of them.

This seems to be why describing PNG in terms of desolation and despair is getting people’s backs up.  It has very serious problems, which its citizens acknowledge and are working to address, with the very little resources that they have.  But it is an incredible place, rich in culture, faith and community, and people are proud of their country.  Seeing its reputation trashed for the sake of Australian political gain is not especially palatable.

But conversely, it’s these aspects that make successfully resettling asylum seekers in PNG an impossible feat.  Without land, you are always on someone else’s, which can cause animosity and mean that new arrivals will lead an unsettled life.  Without a job, which are hard enough to come by if you’re a national, you have no money, and there is no Centrelink safety-net equivalent.  Without connections, life in PNG is extremely hard.   And PNG is already dealing with its own refugees – it already hosts 9,000 refugees from West Papua, who have fled violence under Indonesian rule.

But from within my cocooned world, the deal is still just an idea.  I see the human cost only in the shell-shocked journalists, ducking away from their desks for a quick smoke and beer at a gathering they were meant to be hosting, before heading up for another eight-hour stint strapped to the keyboard, trying to unearth the costings beneath the bluster.  And in my friends in Australian government agencies, who have disappeared into the abyss and have been pretty much incommunicado since Friday night. But we are all watching and waiting to see exactly how the impossible can be achieved.

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