December 12th, 2007

Fawlty Towers

(no subject)

It's early days yet, but the new Rudd Labour government is doing me proud. A start has been made on dismantling the institutionalised latent racism of the John Howard era. In response to the MV Tampa affair, Howard & Co. established their morally repulsive "Pacific Solution". Thousands of islands which were formerly in Australia's migration zone were removed, and asylum seekers who land there or are otherwise intercepted prior to reaching the Australian mainland have no right to apply for an Australian visa. The government even tried to do this retroactively to some territories after asylum seekers landed there. So what happened to these people? They were transported to processing facilities also located outside Australia's migration zone to have their applications for refugee status assessed, most notably to the effectively bankrupt island country of Nauru in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In other words, the Australian government deliberately sought to reduce the rights of and their responsibility to some of the planet's most vulnerable and desperate people. After all, to quote (possibly paraphrase) Howard, "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come here", and it's not hard to guess who Howard and his cronies decided they wanted to let in after one government minister incorrectly asserted that African migrants are more prone to criminal activity. You better believe that if there were white refugees from a civil war in New Zealand or a repressive theocracy in the US or widespread "dirty" terrorism in the UK, they wouldn't be sent to languish for up to three years in Nauru.

As you would expect, this policy was an absolute failure. Acording to an August 2007 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Pacific Solution cost Australian taxpayers a cool billion dollars over a five year period, and the cost of processing asylum seekers offshore was seven times that of processing them in Australia. Money that could have been spent on improving healthcare and educational facilities with better equipment and higher wages was burnt on blatant deprivation of rights. Money that could have been spent on urgent infrastructural upgrades to boost capacity on rail and lower pollution by transferring freight to environmentally friendly trains was burnt on a pathetic attempt to demonstrate the government's muscle to the right wing. The Howard government tried to pretend to Australians that it was the best option for economic growth and strongest on security. In reality, it pursued an option that was economically daft, stripped thousands of people of the security of law, and even failed to achieve its desired outcoming in reducing how many people are seeking asylum in Australia. Thank goodness these foolish xenophobes are gone.

Problem is, the ramifications of the Pacific Solution will last years. I am not referring to Australia's tarnished image on human rights or whether Rudd will restore the former boundaries of Australia's migration zone, though those are significant issues. I'm referring to poor Nauru. Once a wealthy Pacific island state, it is a lesson in why you need to manage your money well and why you should not let large multi-national companies gang-rape your land and take all your resources. Nauru was loaded with phosphate; was. The resources are gone. The island has precious little else to offer. My uncle went to Nauru to help build a new hospital ward (and lost an eye there); I understand that funds ran out and the ward remains unfinished. The place has gone down the economic gurgler. Howard & Co. effectively bribed Nauru to participate in the Pacific Solution; they preyed on Nauru's economic desperation and vulnerability by offering considerable financial aid in exchange for establishing a centre to process illegal immigrants in their territory. Nauru received millions of dollars in exchange for doing so, and in the process has become considerably dependent on the Pacific Solution. Now, with Rudd phasing it out, The Age reports that Nauru fears that it is screwed. That's right; not only did Howard pursue a repugnant policy "solution" in response to asylum seekers, but he also made an entire country dependent on it. Now what will the people of Nauru do? No matter how well Rudd phases out the Pacific Solution and no matter how much financial aid Australia continues to supply, that's simply not going to cut it. It keeps Nauru dependent and on the verge of insolvency if the political or economic winds in Australia shift away from it. Let's hope no more politicians exploit this tiny country for their own gain.

I am so genuinely relieved that Howard has gone, and writing this entry really drove that home for me. The Howard government sure enjoyed exploiting the desperate and vulnerable people of this world, both to gather votes ("oh noes illegal immigrants - crime, disease, terrorism!" played well to morons on the right wing) and to accomplish their morally bankrupt schemes ("hey, Nauru, we hear you could use some money ..."). I don't think anybody with a sense of compassion will miss them.