Failed state

It is still not clear exactly what happened on the streets of Port Moresby this week.

Initially reports had as many as four students shot and killed by police as they attempted to march on parliament. Later, it was reported that eight people, or 10 or 11, had been wounded by gunfire but none killed.

What is clear is that police fired on a group of students protesting against the government of Peter O’Neill. This was done to suppress dissent. It was done – as so much is done in Papua New Guinea – to prop up O’Neill’s rheumatic leadership.

As a former Australian government official told Mike Seccombe in this paper, before the shootings: “It is not close to being a failed state. It is a failed state, and has been for some years. Within government the struggle between good and evil is over. It is now a kleptocratic government. The only struggle is over who gets how much. There is theft on a scale that has no parallels outside Africa.”

But Australia is almost silent. This country has allowed its nearest neighbour to founder, its institutions to fail, in exchange for hosting the detention centre on Manus Island, invalidated by their highest court but continuing to operate.

The response to the shootings from the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has been muted. Horribly so. “If people have been shot in this incident, it is a tragedy and we urge for calm, to de-escalate tensions between the students and the police,” she said. “We ask that the right to protest peacefully and lawfully be respected.”

The student demonstrations in Port Moresby have been running for more than a month. They are protesting O’Neill’s leadership and the cloud of corruption around him.

The prime minister refuses to answer questions over his role in the apparently fraudulent payment of $30 million to the country’s largest law firm. An arrest warrant has been served on him and then stayed. O’Neill has dismantled the taskforce investigating him. The attorney-general and deputy police commissioner have been sacked, and the police commissioner arrested. Process is in chaos.

O’Neill’s prime ministership has once been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, after he installed himself unconstitutionally while the sitting prime minister was overseas. He went on to win an election, but rules with an authoritarian disregard for the institutions of his country. His economy, too, is in crisis. O’Neill is asking the World Bank for a bailout. Corruption is rife.

This is the man who sat smiling next to Kevin Rudd as the Manus Island deal was signed in Brisbane three years ago. He is the man cupping Tony Abbott’s hand during a meeting in Port Moresby, days before it was revealed the countries had co-operated to close down a human rights inquiry into conditions on Manus.

O’Neill’s disregard for democratic institutions is appalling. Australia’s support for his leadership is staggering. We are allowing an entire nation to fail so that we might continue our cruel system of offshore detention. The gunfire this week was the sound of a country in desperate need of help. But its people mean less to Australian politics than the 900 men O’Neill’s regime is helping us to punish on Manus Island.

The governor of the Oro province, Gary Juffa, made a salient observation in the wake of this week’s shootings. It is worth repeating. “The use of police in a very brutal fashion to suppress dissent and to stop democratic expressions of concern by groups,” he said, “whether they be student groups or civil society groups, starts sending signals that we are not a democratic nation – that we are seeing the birth of an authoritarian state, a police state.”

In this, Australia has been shamefully culpable. The harm done by our immigration system continues. It could yet destroy an entire country.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Failed state".

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