20 July 20138 August 2013 Politics The PNG Solution and the ‘perspective of those who suffer’ Jeff Sparrow 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. More by Jeff Sparrow 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 First published in Overland Issue 228 30 November 202230 November 2022 Politics The return of public power to Victoria? Zacharias Szumer The newly elected Andrews government has promised to bring public ownership of electricity back to Victoria. However, there are no immediate plans to reinstate the public utility model that prevailed through much of the twentieth century. Rather, a publicly owned renewables company will operate within an electricity market shaped by decades of neoliberal reform. 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