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Documents reveal the Australian government was called on to enforce Nauru’s blacklist of political dissidents working in offshore detention. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Exclusive: Australia enforces Nauru’s blacklist

Nauru president Baron Waqa in Canberra.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

The email came from the Nauruan president’s chief of staff. It was directed to a senior official in the Australian Department of Immigration and followed a phone conversation between the two. The subject was a Nauruan man working for a subcontractor in one of Australia’s detention centres in the Pacific Island nation. He was on a Nauruan government blacklist, and the president’s office wanted Australia’s help to sack him.

The chief of staff wasn’t freelancing – he’d been instructed by President Baron Waqa himself. Nor was he vague about his intention – the man in question was to be “blacklisted”. Nothing in the email suggests the president’s chief of staff had any doubt the Australian official was the best person with whom to lodge the request. Justification was given for the blacklisting, which The Saturday Paper has chosen not to detail, but investigations by this newspaper strongly suggest the justification offered was spurious. “Appreciate if the matter can be acted on accordingly,” the email ends. The man’s employment was terminated soon after. 

The Nauru blacklist is a blunt instrument used by the Waqa government to punish political opponents. It is used pervasively and has been since at least 2015. The Saturday Paper has seen evidence that the Australian government was not only aware of the blacklist but helped the Nauruan government in its enforcement.

 

Last Friday, the Nauru 19 gathered at the home of Mathew Batsiua’s parents for a barbecue. They were joined by friends and family. The day before, their three-year ordeal had ended – legally, at least – when the Nauruan Supreme Court permanently stayed their trial on multiple charges of public disorder. In a 107-page judgement, which went unremarked upon by the Australian government, Judge Geoffrey Muecke, an Australian specially appointed to hear this trial, exhaustively damned the Nauruan government’s misuse of power and its denial of justice to the accused. Ruing the appointment of the independent judge, the Nauruan justice minister, David Adeang, subsequently threatened and racially abused Muecke in parliament. 

Mathew Batsiua is a former justice minister, and one of three opposition MPs who were expelled from parliament in 2014 after criticising the Waqa government in foreign media. The following year, Batsiua joined public protests against the expulsions and government corruption in general. He was arrested with 18 others – including a former Nauruan president – and his passport was cancelled. But the protest never really stopped. Despite the threat of conviction and his occasional incarceration, Batsiua never ceased drawing attention to Nauruan corruption. His government despised him.

The barbecue was less of a celebration, he says, and more of an emotional accounting. “We sat around reflecting,” Batsiua tells me. “People gave speeches about what the journey meant for them. It was a great event. A sober event. But there was a bit more liquid the next day.” He laughs.

Part of that “journey” meant financial and social estrangement, courtesy of a blacklist compiled by the Nauruan government. Involvement in the 2015 protest, or sympathy for the 19, was the most common reason for a name’s addition, although The Saturday Paper is aware of occasions when names were added more capriciously, with even more spurious justifications. In order to protect individuals from further retribution, The Saturday Paper has chosen not to detail them.

In a country where so much employment is dependent upon the government – and, in recent years, that has principally meant jobs associated with Australia’s Regional Processing Centre – the blacklisting is personally disastrous. Batsiua’s friends and family were blacklisted, along with many others.

“I am satisfied on the evidence before me ... that ever since the so-called riot at Parliament on 16 June 2015, the defendants have been on a government-imposed employment ‘blacklist’, which has prevented them, or severely limited them, from obtaining employment on Nauru since the 16 June ‘riot’,” Judge Muecke said in last week’s judgement. “I am satisfied and find that this ‘blacklist’ does not exist on a piece of paper, but that the government has made it known to employers and businesses on the island that it wishes and expects that the ‘rioters’ be not offered paid employment on Nauru. Whether that ‘blacklist’ applies to persons other than the actual persons charged, including their families and others, is something upon which I cannot make a finding. I do find, however, that the ‘blacklist’ as I have found it to be was and has been a matter of ‘government policy’ and is so understood by people on Nauru.

“In my judgement, this government imposed ‘blacklist’ is a further shameful affront to the Rule of Law in Nauru which I indicated in my judgement of 21 June 2018 ... If ‘government policy’ had changed since then, I would have expected to have heard about the change during the hearing before me in late July/early August 2018. I did not.”

But at least one list did exist on paper. The Saturday Paper has seen it. It was posted to the entrance of detention camps. It includes 100 names and a brief reason for their inclusion. The list’s pattern is obvious: it is mostly the Nauru 19, their friends and family, and the most common reason listed is “Unlawful assembly” – a reference to their participation in the 2015 protest.

The Saturday Paper has also seen evidence that the Australian government helped enforce the blacklist. The process was simple. Where blacklisted individuals were employed by companies contracted by the Australian government, the office of the Nauruan president would contact department officials with names and request that the Australian government ask their employers to fire them. In one instance – described at the opening of this story – an individual whose termination was requested by the office of the Nauruan president was sacked soon after an Australian immigration official had received the request.

The individual was employed by Canstruct, a Brisbane-based company that now runs the Nauruan processing centre. When I called their head office, I was referred to their public relations agency, Mercer PR – the same Australian company employed by the Nauruan government. Their response to questions was yet another referral – to the Australian Department of Home Affairs. It is a closed circle.

In response to detailed questions regarding the Australian government’s actions – including specific questions about the 2016 correspondence detailed in this story – a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said only: “Questions regarding decisions made by the government of Nauru should be directed to the government of Nauru.” The response was consistent with the government’s serial affectation of distance from its own policy, and its referral of related inquiries to the Nauruan government. 

 

None of the evidence of requests to the Australian government was news to Mathew Batsiua. I asked him how the blacklist was implemented; he told me that the Australian government’s involvement is routine. “The president won’t go to the service provider directly,” he says. “He’ll go to an [Australian] immigration official on the island. That’s how it rolls. That’s the normal procedure. [The president’s office] convey their desire to the Australian government, and that’s how the action will be carried out. I’ve had direct experience. My wife ran a laundry service and had not a written contract, but a verbal agreement with Transfield, which became Broadspectrum, and they were told to stop using our service. They’d been using us for two years.”

When I raised the issue with a former senior immigration official, they said: “It doesn’t come as a surprise to me. We’d made a devil’s bargain. The Nauruan government called the shots because Australia was desperate for the arrangement to continue. Their corruption was spoken openly about. Ministers didn’t really want to know the ins and outs. That’s plausible deniability.

“Look, this is what happens when governments say: ‘This is what we have to do to solve today’s problem’, rather than thinking about next week. It was about immediate fixes and not sustainable solutions. In a place that small – ‘You can’t work in this town, this country’ – it’s awful. It continues the sorry story of colonial misadventures in Nauru.”            

Where blacklisted individuals are employed directly by the Nauruan government, there is no Australian involvement in their sacking. But they’re still sacked. The Saturday Paper has seen multiple letters ordering an individual’s termination of employment, which cite their involvement in the protests as justification. Most of these letters were sent within days of the 2015 rally. One typical letter reads: “I have been instructed by my superiors to place you under suspension due to your involvement ... in the demonstration outside the Parliament House. Your involvement in the most violent protest in our history is not only prejudicial to the good order and discipline [of the employer], but also the country as a whole ... Given the serious nature of your offence, you are hereby placed on suspension without pay with immediate effect.”

The Nauruan blacklist is not limited to the denial of employment. The Saturday Paper has heard reports – some of which have been repeated in sworn affidavits – that pensions and rental properties were also denied to those critical of the Waqa government.

 

Geoffrey Muecke’s judgement, which the Nauruan government has said it will appeal, was damning but unsurprising to any observer of the country. Muecke summarised: “My ultimate conclusion [is] that the Republic of Nauru was anxious, following the so-called riot at Parliament House on 16 June 2015, to commit considerable resources, including significant financial resources, in prosecuting the 20 citizens of Nauru charged with various offences alleged to have occurred on that day, but the republic, through its executive government, were not prepared to commit any resources, including financial resources, to ensure that any of them received a fair trial and hearing according to law, as is guaranteed to them by the Constitution of Nauru.”

Last month, Geoffrey Eames, QC, a former Australian judge and chief justice of Nauru, gave a lecture at La Trobe University in Melbourne. It was a long reflection on the rule of the law and its health, and in it he reflected upon his effective expulsion from the country in 2014 – along with another Australian, Peter Law, who was serving as Nauru’s resident magistrate. “The government sought to crush any opposition in parliament and as outrage grew about its actions, it was willing to take ever increasing authoritarian actions,” he said. “Having removed the judiciary, the government sought to ensure that no one could gain a hearing in the courts to challenge the government’s actions.”     

 

In the new Australian prime minister’s office sits a boat-shaped trophy, gifted to him by a grateful constituent, with the words “I Stopped These” stamped on it. The sentiment is, basically, true. As immigration minister, Scott Morrison executed Tony Abbott’s policy to “stop the boats”. But the trophy suggests some sort of clean and uncomplicated triumph. It was not. The policy was – and remains – a devil’s bargain.

The blacklist remains in effect.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.