I can’t remember having any one particular conversation about it, but over time, I have come to know Manus Island vicariously, through the eyes of a local – as a lovely, lazy, tropical idyll populated by friendly, relaxed and gentle people.
It was before the Australian Detention Centre opened there.
Yet, ironically, in the latest reports coming out about the riots in Manus, it is the ‘locals’ who are being blamed for the breaching of the perimeter fences and for the vicious attack on the inmates
How can this be reconciled?
Let’s face it though, the reports have been contradictory – even the ones from the Minister himself have been revised, corrected and updated. I suspect it will be some time before we know for sure what actually transpired, and maybe not even then.
However, not in dispute, is that a violent confrontation took place there resulting in one death and many injuries.
At this stage, local Manusians are one group suspected to be the perpetrators. Other suspects are the civilian security guards and police (both PNGean and ex pat.) and ,of course, the asylum seekers themselves.
What could possibly turn peace-loving Manusians into those who would potentially wreak havoc on incarcerated asylum seekers (if, in fact, they did)?
There’s only one answer: fear.
The origin of Australian fear
Fear of people ‘not like us’ is a prevalent theme in the history of Australia ever since colonization.
It started with the fear of indigenous Australians. There was many an Aboriginal massacre perpetrated in the cause of white settlers’ safety.
In 1883, so concerned was Premier McIlwraith of Queensland about French and German Imperialism in the islands surrounding Australia that that he annexed New Guinea. (The Act was later overturned and disavowed by the British parliament.)
I imagine fear and insecurity has it roots in Australia as an Anglo/Celt nation of colonizers, living in amongst what has often been perceived as a hostile region.
To perpetuate the Anglo/Celt nation, and in a reaction to the tension between the Chinese and ‘whites’ on the goldfields, as well as to placate Labour’s opposition to the ‘Pacific’ workers, the 1901, Immigration Restriction Act was legislated – (subsequently to be known as The White Australia Policy)
Although much revised in the subsequent years, it was not completely overturned until 1975 by Gough Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act. (The same government that steered PNG to independence, that very same year.)
But the White Australia Policy was not enough to assuage the national feeling of insecurity. Perceived national security threats were many and varied – and mostly more perceived than real.
It is why Australians have clung firstly to Britain and then to the ANZUS alliance. It was (and is) perceived that these large powerful nations would come to Australia’s rescue in the case of attack, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
Yet, in the decision to commit Australian troops to fight in wars,not of Australia’s making and, in which Australia has little or no direct stake, fear has been the largest consideration that has instructed Australian foreign policy.
To demonstrate Australian fealty to the prosecuting nation, Australian troops have participated in the Boer through the Korean, and then the Vietnam war – and, more recently, in conflicts in the Middle East. (And that’s aside from participation in the two world wars ,fought on alien soil in remote (to Australia) locations.)
Australian government exploits the fear.
There have been infrequent, but notable occasions, when Australia’s security fears have been justified, although, in general, the reaction has been totally disproportionate to the threat.
Over the years, various governments have learned the electoral value of exploiting this most ingrained of Australian fear.
An opportunity to do just that arose for the Liberal Party under Robert Menzies in 1954 (deliberately manufactured according to Labor’s Doc Evatt )
The defection of the Soviet diplomat/spy Vladimir Petrov in 1954, was thought to have uncovered connections between the Russian Embassy and the Labor Party, its leader and his staffers. It turned out not to be so but this incident turned the tables of electoral fortunes and ensured victory for the already ruling Liberals.
If Evatt was right and the ruse was timed and deliberate, It was a forerunner to the Howardian tactic:
- Create the problem.
- Whip up as much fear as possible.
- Solve the problem – to the relief and gratitude of all concerned.
It has proved an electoral winner on more than one occasion.
The Howard years
But it was John Howard who polished and perfected the technique, in the most ignoble of fashion. Human rights’ lawyer Julian Burnside writes:
The debate about asylum seekers was poisoned from the beginning by the Howard government…
It was during the term of the Howard government that words slipped into the lexicon such as “illegals and queue jumpers” that demonized asylum seekers and did nothing to assuage the inherent and unjustified fear of these most wretched of people.
Then, in a episode of sheer bastardry, Howard, flagging in the electoral polls in 2001, salvaged his chances by exploiting two serendipitous incidents (…for Howard, if not for the asylum seekers)
Firstly, there was the ‘Tampa’ incident where Australia refused to land asylum seekers that had been picked up by the ship.
It was Howard ‘getting tough’ on “illegal immigants,” to the approval of a significant number of perpetually frightened Australians.
Then there was the ‘children overboard’ incident where Howard government ministers disseminated information that parents were throwing their children overboard at sea in an attempt to enhance their chances of being taken into Australia. Except there was no one throwing children in the sea.
Ready to believe the worst of these people the cry went up:
Are these ‘boat people’ monsters? How could they endanger their children like this,
We don’t need these sorts in Australia.
And, once again, the Howard government’s purchase went up.
The unscrupulous lies had worked their magic. Generally Australia wanted to believe. It flattered their prejudices – it just wasn’t true.
Then came the internationally discredited ‘Pacific Solution’ that was widely popular in Australia.
And later still, the Australian Labor Party, after a shift to the right, decided it too would exploit the fear. Enter Kevin Rudd…
…the Labor Party knight in shining armour who was going to show Julia Gillard how to win an Australia election – using the most despicable of Liberal Party tactics.
With the fear already stroked, Rudd would steal the Liberal Party’s thunder by providing the solution to the ‘boat people’ that would save Australia (from nothing at all) and plunge PNG into a crisis it’s been, so far, ill-equipped to handle; left with a bad situation that’s poised to worsen.
No matter, it’s winning elections that counts not Australian integrity nor Australian humanity – and certainly not PNG.
If fear is contagious, how much of this Australian baggage has been unloaded subliminally, or otherwise, onto the people of Manus island?
Have Manusians absorbed the fear and developed an expectation that there is something inherently dangerous and to be feared in the very nature of these asylum seekers? Something they need to protect themselves against?
Are they now on the offensive – fearing …something…what? And is all the fearmongering becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy? I don’t know. I’m just trying to make sense of the startling paradoxes.
To add insult to injury, the Australian government similarly have demonised the people of PNG as fearsome.
If PNG is to be sold as a deterrent to boat people, then the media are not drawing too long a bow in interpreting “deterrent” to mean ‘Hell-hole’, especially when there is a compliant PNG Prime Minister who hasn’t protested.
If you add to this the expected residual benefits that the Manusians were expecting, in way of employment etc, that haven’t eventuated, then you can throw resentment into an already explosive mix of mutual fear.
Bring forward the dancing puppets?