The PNG Solution and the ‘perspective of those who suffer’

We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

That’s the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as quoted approvingly in Kevin Rudd’s notorious essay ‘Faith in Politics’. Rudd continues:

I argue that a core, continuing principle ….  should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s critique in the ’30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed. […] Furthermore, parallel to this identification with those ‘below’ was Jesus’ revulsion at what he described as the hypocrisy of the religious and political elites of his time, that is, those who were ‘above’.

You will struggle to think of a greater contemporary example of the hypocrisy of those who are ‘above’ than the so-called ‘PNG Solution’ outlined by Kevin Rudd yesterday, a plan that entails one of the richest countries in the world outsourcing its fundamental national responsibilities to one of the poorest, rather in the manner of wealthy men during the American Civil War hiring paupers to take their place in the fighting. Or perhaps, if you prefer the terms of Rudd the essayist, it’s akin to Pastor Bonhoeffer deciding that, on second thoughts, he’d rather not face the Nazi gallows – and inviting his captors to hang a servant instead.

According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2012, PNG’s GDP stood at US$19.41 billion in 2012. The same source computes the figure for Australia as $US986.7 billion. That’s the numerical context for this proposal, an economic whale throwing its humanitarian burden onto a nearby minnow.

Indeed, Rudd’s announcement draws attention to a topic about which liberal Australia scarcely likes to think: namely, Australia’s role as an imperial power in the Pacific, behaving in the region much as the US does throughout the world.

We’ll return to that in a minute but let’s first analyse this scheme in terms of the domestic politics that inspired it. That is, this is not a stratagem drawn up to assist the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed; it is, quite obviously, a wheeze concocted exclusively because Rudd and his advisors think that, by ostentatiously beating up on the outcasts and the suspects, they can outflank Tony Abbott on the Right.

Well, maybe they can. But like so many of the dodges dreamed up by the geniuses of the Labor Party, it risks being too clever by half.

By the very extremity of the move, Rudd has now loudly proclaimed asylum seekers to be an existential menace ­– precisely what the Liberals have always asserted. Labor, in other words, continues not only to accept but also to reinforce a framing devised by the conservatives. The ‘PNG Solution’  says to the electorate that the tiny number of refugees arriving in Australia constitutes a national emergency and invites voters – practically implores them – to judge the government on how well it solves this non-existent ‘problem’. Any setbacks, any missteps, any failures to keep asylum seekers from irritating us with their suffering will therefore become a stick with which Abbott can beat Labor.

Yes, it’s possible that Rudd has sucked the oxygen from Abbott’s slogan about turning back boats.

But it’s  obvious that this stunt – like so many of its predecessors – has been cooked up on the spot in some overheated backroom, with the details about how exactly it’s supposed to operate remaining to be thrashed out in the weeks to come.

So, in the short term, we can expect all manner of SNAFUs. Each of them will provide opportunities for Abbott, who will be able to say: well, Rudd agrees that refugees are the biggest problem facing Australia – and look how ineptly he’s managing them!

The more Labor legitimises the ‘national emergency’ trope, the more credence the Liberals have to present themselves as the original and the best when it comes to hating on refugees.

Certainly, it’s quite wrong to think Rudd’s lurch to the Right leaves Abbott with nowhere to go. As we’ve seen repeatedly over the years, every rightward step on asylum seekers creates the possibilities for another one. Why, there was a time, not so very long ago, when the excision of the entire Australian continent from the migration zone seemed like a low beyond which no-one could descend – and look at the depths we have reached now!

In the medium term, the policy will be a disaster, precisely because of the aforementioned imperial relationship between Australia and PNG. Think about how quickly this deal has been announced. The political leaders of PNG might have been enrolled in Rudd’s press conference but the people they represent clearly have not been consulted in the slightest – indeed, they seemed to have learned of the whole affair via that announcement.

Meanwhile, the ABC’s Sean Dorney writes

Manus is the smallest province in PNG.

My wife is from Manus and she and my daughter went back to her home for a holiday last year.

She says the province is not set up to handle a huge influx of people.

The announcement that those found to be genuine refugees will be settled in Papua New Guinea raises the question of where?

Ninety-seven per cent of the land in PNG is traditionally owned and land issues are a complex problem.


Another issue could be the resentment that resettling the genuine refugees in Papua New Guinea might cause.


PNG does not have a welfare system and the main cities have thousands of people living in squatter settlements.

There is also the issue of culture shock – likely from both sides. Many of these people found to be genuine refugees will have little in common with Papua New Guineans.

We have already seen in Nauru how Australia’s indifference to the local population in the furtherance of its plans to dispose of refugees causes massive dislocation in the host country. Overland will shortly publish a fuller account of the Nauru situation but suffice to say that the installation of the detention centre there entailed an almost colonial intervention in Nauru, spurring dire political and economic crises. PNG will be no different – indeed, the scale of this plan means the consequences are likely to be even more severe.

Of course, it’s possible that the outcome for PNG might remain as invisible to Australians as, by and large, the impact of the detention centres on Nauru has been. But, then again, PNG is much bigger than Nauru, and the people there have rather more opportunities to make their voices heard.

So it’s a moot point as to whether the ‘PNG Solution’ has any long or even medium term future.

Obviously, Rudd’s not thinking about that. Indeed, his policy can be encapsulated in in a slogan of four words (rather than three): Après moi, le deluge.

Yesterday’s announcement will do untold damage to asylum seekers, to PNG and to the political culture of Australia. Furthermore, it’s by no means guaranteed to keep Abbott out: indeed, by the normalisation of previously unthinkable cruelty, it widens the scope for more bastardry to come, either under Labor or the Coalition.

‘We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds,’ wrote Bonhoeffer, in the thirties. ‘We have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?’

He might have been discussing Rudd and the ALP.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. It would be interesting to see how this affects PNG’s demographic situation. e.g. forcing various (mostly) Shi’ite refugees to live in a very hostile country where they have little to no protection from the state. I can imagine their Islam might suddenly mean a lot more to them than it meant in their home countries, to the point of radicalisation. (PNG has a very tenuous concept of nationhood, so it’s unlikely Papuan citizenship will offer much to these people in their inevitable search for self-identity. And PNG is so hostile and dysfunctional that ghetto-isation seems almost inevitable, far more than in wealthier countries that would offer migrants some kind of social security — i.e. a reason to value belonging to that nation.)
    In the long run, there could be serious blowback for both our government and PNG’s.
    (Bear in mind too that if PNG finds itself with significant Shi’ite or Tamil minorities, those ethnic/sectarian blocs would likely be more politically organised than anyone else in that country.)
    I’m trying to think ahead here to how the situation might look in ten or twenty years time if Rudd’s PNG “solution” continues — PNG’s postcolonial woes are bad enough without a new source of conflict.

  2. The only people who will suffer, again, will be the refugees because this still wont stop the people smugglers, who will still be taking the money from people who are still desperate enough to climb aboard these boats.

  3. Solution by Rudd for Rudd. On a par with thinking that what you consider domestic rubbish can be tossed in a wheely bin and that’s the problem solved.

  4. Thank you for a fantastic insight. More interestingly, from my reading there has been no mention in any press (or in the announcement itself) about how much this is all costing the Australian taxpayer. I can’t imagine the PNG government is just taking all the refugees out the goodness of their heart with no financial incentive from the Australian government. The reality is the ‘passing the buck strategy’ from Rudd is probably not saving us anything, least of all a reputation for humanitarianism.

  5. Kevin Rudd seems to be asserting that Christians are the persecuted minority. It is unusual that anything that happens in Christendom is obvious in the histories told – maybe it’s the case! It doesn’t make Bonhoeffer’s words any less pertinent and it doesn’t license to any greater an extent the idiocy and tyranny of the past fifteen years. You can only work with the material you have: what was a simple matter of human rights is now a series of complex and difficult issues, best handled with care.

    1. A visit to Indonesia, and lo! a week later a neat solution !Not withstanding that Indonesia’s President, with elections also looming has decided that visas will need to be applied for in the “source” country to enter Indonesia.What deals were done? Live Animal exports?
      Bonhoeffer? Kevin Rudd? Tony Abbott? Who can adhere to compassion for the marginalised once having reached positions of power (which should read positions of resbonsibility)? Name!

  6. Here are some very basic facts: There are currently 43 million refugees in the world, 80% of which are women and children; 90% of those that arrive by boat are single adult men. Australia’s current yearly intake of refugees is 27,000, up from 13,500 only two years ago. The question I then ask is simple: why give an advantage to only those that can afford to pay people smugglers? For every refugee that comes by boat, we leave languishing in a camp around the world, one who has been waiting for often ten years or more, is virtually penalised for being poor, and not risking the journey in a leaky boat; most of the time too these are the people whose lives are in imminent danger… Perhaps we need to think about taking even more refugees in per year; but the current model is extremely flawed. Evidenced this year by a huge increase in those arriving who are from countries with no existing conflicts occurring, these people do deserve a chance at a better life, most certainly, but not in place of those whose lives are in imminent danger. Furthermore the design of these new laws are to stem the people smuggling program which right now is simply at bursting point and unsustainable. This is compounded by many people now arriving who are totally cashed up and simply seeking a change in lifestyle! What ever our refugee intake number, I believe it should be triaged, let’s focus on those who have been in camps for years upon years and those fleeing imminent danger. This will definitely put a significant dent in the trade of people smugglers, who currently are making between 1 – 2 million dollars a boat!

  7. Of course, it’s possible that the outcome for PNG might remain as invisible to Australians as, by and large, the impact of the detention centres on Nauru has been. But, then again, PNG is much bigger than Nauru, and the people there have rather more opportunities to make their voices heard.

    So it’s a moot point as to whether the ‘PNG Solution’ has any long or even medium term future.

    The real logistics of any significant resettlement project, and the resulting generational conflicts, are the empty space in the extremely strident moral debate on this issue.

    There were an insightful couple of comments from Andrew Bartlett on Tad Tietze’s “turning point” piece, to the effect that if boat arrivals are not deterred or stopped by this policy, there will very likely be incidents of violence against the highly visible resettled refugee population in PNG.

    In political terms this policy is the fraternal twin of Gillard’s Malaysian Solution, announced just slightly later in the campaign cycle before the 2010 election.

    It’s a waste of public money framed as a competent internationalist solution to a politically unpalatable problem, aimed only at ALP reelection, differing from its predecessor by Australia’s dominant relationship with the destination for these refugees, and by the seemingly low chance of diplomatic blowback prior to the election.

  8. When I don’t agree with something I do, usually, have an alternative idea. In the cases of the asylum seekers coming to Australia by boats I don’t. But I can suggest that a reflection on human’s rights and obligations should be made. That is: people must understand also about their obligations in consideration of their children’s rights. Why do this people and others in similar circumstances that cannot provide for themselves are bringing offspring to this inequitable world? I made the decision to have no children at a very young stage of my deprived childhood. Even though my growing up was not as bad as some of those poor people. I am glad I did considering the ‘human nature’ of this world.

  9. Hmm. So the choices left now for asylum seekers in respect of Australia are to either (a) tell straight-up lies in order to get a Visa, travel here by plane, and then apply for asylum after getting into and out of our airport immigration checks (at departure and then arrival), or (b) flee your home—not to get anywhere permanent, but instead to enter the double lottery of the UNHCR and the Dept of Immigration approving you for resettlement.

    It’s a convenient thing, being an island. It’s a less convenient thing, that refugee convention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *