Opinion

John Martinkus
Forbidden island

It was the mid-’90s when I started my career in journalism. The reports I would seek out and try to emulate were those from places, countries, regimes where journalists were kept out, banned, jailed, killed for trying to report. Back then it was countries such as Timor-Leste, West Papua, Myanmar that inspired me. Here were regimes trying to hide things at all costs. Occasionally some reporter would get through, usually by stealth, pretending to be a tourist, an English teacher, anything other than a journalist. They would come out with some footage or a report on the human rights abuses being carried out by secretive regimes. People such as British journalist Max Stahl, who filmed the Santa Cruz massacre of East Timorese by Indonesian troops in 1991, were doing work, I believed, that made a difference, righted wrongs and led to definitive changes in government policy for the better.

These were troubled places, run largely in secret by cruel regimes. They were black spots that seemed almost not to exist. Australia has become that place. We have our own black spots. We ban reporting. We threaten whistleblowers with jail. In these black spots, people die.

When I started in journalism, Australians weren’t involved in the “war on terror”. We were seen internationally as benign and neutral. We lectured other countries with a clean conscience, or so it seemed, and were perceived as a nation that respected human rights. I travelled abroad and found that Australia was regarded as a generally decent place: fair, egalitarian, multicultural. All those traits we still like to think apply to us as a people, as a nation, seemed to me as a young man reflected in how I was treated overseas.

But these past few weeks have been devastating for Australia’s international reputation. First we had the release of more than 2000 “incident reports” from the detention centre on Nauru which, despite Australia’s legal feints and obfuscation, is run by Australian companies and staffed by Australians. The reports document rapes, self-harm, suicide attempts and violent treatment of the 500 or so men, women and children held there indefinitely by the Australian government. The release was followed by denials and silence by the Turnbull government. Then Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young was denied permission to visit Nauru. Then a delegation of Danish parliamentarians was denied permission to visit Nauru. Then the independent MP from Tasmania, Andrew Wilkie, was denied permission to visit Nauru. Needless to say no journalists, Australian or otherwise, have been allowed to visit Nauru since the release of the documents. This is our black spot.

Just a day after being formally rejected for a visa to visit Nauru to inspect the conditions there, Andrew Wilkie talked to me about what he thought the government was trying to hide.

“The only conclusion I can draw is that the Australian government has something to hide,” he said. “We already know that the forcible transfer of people to a third country and indefinite detention without trial are explicitly identified as crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute, and the Australian government is simply unable to hide that. But keeping people in inhuman conditions is also explicitly a criteria for such a crime under the statute and that is exactly what the government doesn’t want the public to learn of.”

I asked if this refusal was related to the Nauru files, published by The Guardian.

“The prime minister’s refusal is related to the Nauru files because the recent leak of thousands of accounts of incidents, including physical and sexual abuse of children, has re-energised public concern with offshore processing, which makes the government’s policy all the more fragile and open to condemnation,” Wilkie told me. “The government would figure that this is hardly the time to do anything that might further weaken its position, despite the fact that the current heightened secrecy just makes the government look all the worse.”

Australia’s influence over Nauru stretches back to World War I, when we seized the small island from the Germans in 1914. Administration of the island was technically awarded to Britain, New Zealand and Australia at the end of the war, but was wholly under control of Australia. The vast reserves of phosphate were in high demand for agriculture, and mining proceeded to denude the island. The Japanese took the island in World War II, then the Australians got it back, and the mining continued. By the 1950s and early ’60s plans were floated to move the entire population to an island off Queensland’s coast as mining had so devastated the land that it was considered cheaper to move the population rather than rehabilitate the mines.

The relocation never took place. The Nauruans had become wealthy from the royalties of the phosphate mining. They didn’t want to sacrifice their sovereignty to Australia and refused the offer of relocation. But many did come to Australia and much of their money did as well. In the late ’70s, Nauru House, the circular tower block at the top end of Collins Street, was the tallest building in Melbourne. I can remember my father pointing it out and saying, “That was built with bird poo.” Back then Nauruans had money but the mining had left them with no agriculture and no way to sustain themselves. Then the money ran out. Nauru became a base for offshore banking as a way to prop up its failing economy. Foreign aid helped, much from Australia, then, like manna from heaven, a detention centre. This would save the crumbling economy.

How much influence does Australia have over the Nauru government? That was a question for which one of the Danish parliamentarian delegation wanted answers. Ironically, much of the delegation was made up of politicians seeking to somehow emulate Australia’s hardline offshore-processing model. One of the three parliamentarians denied visas to visit Nauru, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, told The Guardian: “It’s still completely unclear for me who has actually got the legal responsibility for what is going on in Nauru. Is it Australia? Is it the government of Nauru? Is it a shared responsibility, and if so what does that mean?” A good question and a painfully obvious answer. Yes, it is Australia. We give Nauru money. They do our bidding.

Wilkie told The Saturday Paper: “Nauru is a client state of Australia and does exactly what Canberra orders. For the prime minister to claim otherwise is downright fanciful because everyone in government circles knows that we bought Nauru many years ago.”

Governance is so poor in Nauru that the country is virtually a failed state. The justice system is ineffective; officials are expelled from the country without good cause or legal basis; the National Bank of Nauru is insolvent; there is no defence force of which to speak; non-public sector employment is disproportionately small; health and education services are inadequate; and the economy is entirely propped up by foreign aid. But instead of genuinely trying to help the Pacific microstate, a succession of Australian governments have milked it for all it’s worth and turned it into just the sort of rotting hulk on which our predecessors incarcerated criminals, Wilkie said.

Wilkie, a former military intelligence officer, says our treatment of neighbours reveals an institutionalised postcolonial attitude of superiority on behalf of our government and institutions. We look down on them. We use our influence as a regional power to access their resources. Whether it is mining – in Bougainville, in West Papua, in Papua New Guinea, on Nauru – or oil and gas – in Timor-Leste and PNG – Australia has a well-documented history of resource exploitation in our immediate region. Our diplomatic influence and financial inducements to ailing economies have repeatedly been used to benefit our own business interests. Why is Australia currently in a dispute in The Hague with Timor-Leste over the oil treaty and seabed rights?

Which brings me back to journalism. It is no longer the governments of Indonesia, Myanmar or Sri Lanka keeping Australian journalists out of places. It is us, our own government, that won’t allow even its sitting parliamentarians to visit the sites of our government-sanctioned abuse in Manus and Nauru. Manus and Nauru are our Guantanamo. They are places where bad things happen and we are not allowed to see.

And for what does Australia debase itself to impose these restrictions? I have tried to visit Manus and Nauru. No visa. If I were to go there I would meet people like my old Afghan translator who, thankfully, has made it to Australia as a refugee. I would meet people who helped the international community in the war we participated in and then withdrew from, leaving them to their fate. My old translator texted me the other night recalling a bad night in the field we had under fire in Afghanistan. The Taliban were shooting at us and calling out. “They were saying, ‘Death to America and their slaves,’ ” my translator wrote to me the other week. “That meant the Taliban were very close, even to those walls where we were sheltered. Yes, we are lucky we did not get killed that day.”

These are the kind of people we are locking up on Manus and Nauru. People who are trying to escape the wars we fought. I despair at the abuses and the secrecy required to sustain them. I despair at the black spots we have built.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Forbidden island". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.