As details emerge of Australian involvement in bribery on Nauru, a senior immigration official describes how ‘corruption was aided and abetted’ by our government. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Australia aided ‘corrupt gangster operation’ on Nauru

A man in a pink shirt steps out of a car with an officer holding the door.
Former Nauruan president Baron Waqa.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

He’s still there, on the island. Nauru is home. It always has been. It’s where he was born, where his kids were raised. Importantly, it’s where his family wants to be. Many of his friends have gone, though, the weight of political persecution too heavy.

He understands why they’ve gone. They were jailed, intimidated, denied legal counsel. They were stalked and harassed. They were labelled enemies of the state for speaking to foreign media. They had their passports revoked for a time, or were summarily sacked from their jobs and barred from future employment – subjects of the Baron Waqa government’s extrajudicial blacklist.

I’ll call him Jason. He’s a remarkably calm man, and assured, and always has been in the many conversations I’ve had with him over many years. Regardless, he wants to remain anonymous. He’s fought just about as much as he can, he says, and is now wary of the cost of retribution to his family. It’s time to defer to them.

“I couldn’t understand why [the Australian government] didn’t do more to put pressure on Nauru,” Jason says about his government’s abuses of power while it hosted one of Australia’s regional processing centres. “They had leverage. So did Nauru, but they didn’t have much income outside of the RPC [regional processing centre]. The Australian government had greater leverage. I was frustrated and mystified at times [because] the Australian government had them in a corner. Australia had great leverage to demand changes, but they didn’t. And because they didn’t, because they were cowering in a way, the Australian government went along.”

I’m speaking with Jason about the legacy of Australia’s detention camps and our government’s indifference to the Nauruan government’s flagrant abuses against its own citizens – abuses that were emboldened by streams of Australian money. We speak in the same week the Nine newspapers, over successive days, revealed grave allegations of graft and ministerial indifference. In one report, Nine alleges major Home Affairs contractors, employed to run offshore detention, had misused money from the Australian government to pay off politicians in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Another report says the Department of Immigration, now Home Affairs, offered a multimillion-dollar offshore detention contract to a man just a month after the responsible minister, Peter Dutton, was warned by the Australian Federal Police that the businessman was being investigated for bribery. “It has been suggested that he was warned,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said this week. “The people deserve an explanation about these events.”

These reports of bribery follow revelations, first published in The Saturday Paper in 2018, that showed the Department of Immigration helped the Nauruan government enforce its unlawful blacklist against perceived political enemies. In 2015, after Nauruans protested against the government’s expulsion of opposition MPs from parliament for speaking with foreign media, the government prosecuted 19 individuals on several charges, including rioting. At the same time, a blacklist was drawn up of roughly 100 names, including the 19, as well as their friends, family and sympathisers. The Saturday Paper saw a copy of it, which was posted to the gates of the detention camps. These people, it was understood, were not to be employed.

In July 2016, President Waqa’s chief of staff emailed a senior official in the Australian Department of Immigration, requesting their assistance in the firing of a Nauruan man from his employment with Canstruct, an Australian firm paid to run the detention camps. The email reads, in part: “As discussed per above person, I have been directed by the President that his employment with Canstruct is to be cancelled. He is to be blacklisted from employment with any RPC related activities, including with Government and with Government owned instruments who are copied in … Appreciate if the matter can be acted on accordingly.”

The man, who The Saturday Paper has chosen not to name, was soon dismissed from his job.

In a lengthy ruling on the prosecution of the 19, published in September 2018, Australian judge Geoffrey Muecke, who had been specially appointed to hear the case, excoriated the Nauruan government for improperly interfering with the judiciary and denying justice to the accused. He threw out the case against the Nauru 19. “In my judgment, the findings and conclusions to which I have just referred, constitute a shameful affront by the Minister for Justice to the Rule of Law in Nauru, which he professes to operate for and give protection to the citizens of the country, under its Constitution,” Muecke wrote. “I am satisfied on the evidence before me and I find 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’.”

What The Saturday Paper revealed, just weeks after Muecke’s judgement, was that the Nauruan government, through the president’s chief of staff, was making direct and successful appeals to senior officials in the Immigration Department to help them in the enforcement of that blacklist.

The persecution of political “enemies” assumed various forms in Nauru. Most were unsubtle. Certainly, the Australian government’s extravagant funding of the RPC emboldened Nauru’s autocrats and facilitated those persecutions – control of that money, which comprised much of the country’s income, conferred great power.

“We were all aware of the blacklist,” Jason says. “Some of the people linked to the protests, who at the time were employed by Transfield or Canstruct, those people lost their jobs. There was no due process. No explanation. ‘We were told you were involved in a protest, and you are hereby dismissed.’ There were a few people like that working for a company at the RPC and given marching orders without any due process. The effect was obviously financial. These were people relying solely on that income. The economic impact was immediate. They felt frustrated because they weren’t given a fair go to respond and the Australian government didn’t seem to care. They knew better. It was mystifying. There was a lot of hope that the Australian government would do more. They could have done tons more. And they shouldn’t have advised the [Nauruan] government to establish their own appeals court.”

Before 2018, Nauru’s ultimate court of appeal was Australia’s own High Court. In that year, however, encouraged by the Australian government, Nauru severed that judicial tie. Australian jurists – such as the Australian magistrate Peter Law, who served as the country’s coroner and was expelled from the country after investigating the sudden, violent death of the Nauruan justice minister’s wife – were concerned. In 2019, the Muecke judgement was unsurprisingly overturned, and the Nauru 19 were found guilty of rioting and unlawful assembly. Those still in the country were jailed.

Geoffrey Eames, a former Victorian Supreme Court judge, served as Nauru’s chief justice for three years until 2014. Eames was effectively barred from returning to Nauru after his visa was revoked – a retaliatory act after Eames had sought an injunction against the deportation of Peter Law. This week, Eames shared with The Saturday Paper the introduction to a memoir, since abandoned, titled Nauru: Descent to Autocracy. In it, he writes: “I tell the story of the events in Nauru because I believe it exposes what I consider were blatant breaches of the rule of law, which were largely ignored by the [then] Australian government. That should matter to all Australians.”

A former senior official in the Department of Immigration, who described the formulation of the offshore policy in 2012 as desperately improvised and a “crazy time”, went further. They said: “Anything the Nauru government wanted, they got. Corruption was aided and abetted. [The Nauruan government] was basically a corrupt gangster operation. It was our dirty little secret, dealing with these two countries [PNG being the other], and both parties did it. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. We didn’t use our leverage, but hey: we’re the country that spied on East Timor.”

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, a long-time critic of offshore detention, added to this chorus: “We had complete power over Nauru, and it’s disappointing that we didn’t use that leverage … to improve the lot of Nauru,” he tells The Saturday Paper. Instead, he says, it was used to maintain a “gulag”. “It goes to show that for us, it was all about us and only about us.

“Undoubtedly, the absence of a federal integrity commission allowed, even encouraged, misconduct in Canberra. I’m in no doubt that the existence of NACC [National Anti-Corruption Commission] now is exercising a real force upon MPs, their staff and public servants.”

It was a devil’s bargain. There was the moral squalor of the camps, but there was also its host. The very government men such as Geoffrey Eames described as “increasingly autocratic” was lavished, indulged, depended upon, co-operated with and, ultimately, helped to enforce its unlawful, vindictively contrived blacklist. Today, several of its former parliamentarians remain in Australia on bridging visas, awaiting confirmation of their asylum status. With one hand we doled out cash to Nauru to help contain asylum seekers and with the other we quietly offered its political exiles immigration forms.

Jason has been following Nine’s investigation and is grateful the issues of corruption and bribery are being ventilated. “They need to be pursued, investigated,” he says. “These things could ramp up in Nauru again. We don’t know what’s going to happen in future. They’ll keep the RPC mothballed and if it’s ramped up in future, we don’t want these things to happen again. And we can’t have Australia do nothing because they feel like they’re at the mercy of a corrupt government. They hold all the aces. It needs the exposure so it doesn’t happen again.”

The Saturday Paper asked the office of Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil if any inquiries or referrals had been made regarding Australia’s role in maintaining the Nauruan government’s blacklist. A spokesperson responded: “We take allegations of corruption in offshore processing very seriously. It would be inappropriate to pre-empt any investigation by commenting further at this time.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Australia aided ‘corrupt gangster operation’ on Nauru ".

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