Opinion

Richard Cooke
False Labor and the birth of Manus

Only voters can create accountability for the bipartisan disaster on Manus Island. But that will mean penalising politicians who are popular.

For once, on Monday, Peter Dutton was telling the truth. He had started off lying, in fact lying about lying, going over the same metronomic talking points with which you must be familiar by now: refugees are untruthful about being threatened; advocates coach them in the lie; the green-left media is spreading it all on purpose. The incident – a Papua New Guinean local brandishing a metal pipe – was filmed but that was no inconvenience. The evidence itself was a kind of lie.

On The Australian’s website, commenters saw no contradiction either, suggesting the threat was both staged and justified at the same time, and that perhaps someone should finish the job once and for all. “The propaganda must stop,” Dutton said later. “I didn’t put them on Manus Island but I have the job to get them off.”

That last sentence was true. Peter Dutton has been called a Nazi, a terrorist, a sociopath, and even a sodomite for lacking the sin of charity. But he is something more rare and unspeakable: a Coalition minister faithfully carrying out a Labor policy.

When Labor was in power, they carried out the policy of detaining asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea with reluctance rather than relish, but apart from some grotesquely cruel flourishes, nothing here is new. The moment asylum seekers were marooned on Manus, these outcomes were inevitable. As the refugee advocate Julian Burnside put it, “To an outsider, the only difference between the two major parties is this: the Coalition treat boat people and boasts about it; Labor would mistreat boat people, but is ashamed of it.”

Labor and their supporters tend to bristle at these comparisons, and, since Philip Ruddock, Liberals occupying the immigration portfolio have been painted as uniquely evil, a line of pure psychopathy broken only by Amanda Vanstone. This is as much a form of moral quarantining as genuine outrage, designed to keep culpability attached to demonic opponents rather than compromised allies. Before Dutton, perplexed commentators – usually of the “render unto Caesar” stripe – asked how Scott Morrison could call himself a man of faith and remain so pitiless. In contrast, Tony Burke or Kevin Rudd required no special theological explanations: conscience was written onto their furrowed brows. All three were sending desperate people to rot in the Pacific, but the Laborites did so from a posture of Deep Concern.

That Deep Concern has been applied to every death, rape and outrage since, along with fretting entreaties that the government be more “accountable” and “transparent”. This purely rhetorical stance evaporates the moment the Greens apply any real measure of accountability and transparency. Then, Labor rushes to protect the government, still terrified of the chimera of the western Sydney voter. Polling suggests even immigration hardliners are rethinking things – the Let Them Stay campaign has shifted sentiments more than is recognised – but the ALP is slow to adapt to the new reality. They are still wedded to their version of the PNG solution, which was somehow more humane in conception. That bright future of offshore detention was cruelled, quite literally, by the Liberal Party.

The centres should have been administered properly, Anthony Albanese fumes. Resettlement should have happened more quickly, says Tanya Plibersek. Rudd himself has embellished this fiction, claiming the PNG deal was only ever intended to operate for a year, despite his colleagues’ recollections. The former prime minister retains his signature caprice in retirement – just six days after calling for a royal commission into News Corp, he was back filing stories for The Australian. But as well as the old-fashioned kind of obfuscation, this hypothetical, humanitarian version of Manus is a self-delusion. No such thing is – or was – possible.

PNG could never house asylum seekers without serious risk, even for a brief period. The country is unable to make even its own citizens safe, let alone unpopular outsiders, and that was clear from the very first day. Just as Kevin Rudd arrived in Port Moresby to seal the deal on July 14, 2013, two truckloads of armed men attacked a training hospital over a perceived slight, threatening the students with knives and firing weapons. The government couldn’t call in the army, because the attackers were the army. Not even the security forces were secure.

Rudd knew about the incident – he had been scheduled to visit the same institution before it was ransacked – but he still described PNG as an ideal prospect for resettlement, “an emerging economy with a strong future; a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations refugees convention”. In reality, the lack of authority, demarcation issues, local resentment and an undercurrent of violence were there from the beginning. The former NSW premier Kristina Keneally was more on the money: in a now-deleted tweet, she noted that Australia insisted on rerunning the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, where lack of oversight turned mild students into brutal penitentiary guards. The difference is that the Stanford Prison Experiment was stopped for ethical reasons.

The problems that beset the Manus solution were so predictable that Rudd outlined them himself, at its inception. “It will be bumpy and rocky for a while,” he told the inaugurating press conference. There would be “unanticipated problems” and legal challenges. The condition of “the Manus facility itself would need to be developed further over time … We intend to ensure that all proper requirements are met and this will take time.” For anyone familiar with Australia’s record on mandatory detention, it sounded like someone noting that the Hindenburg was flammable, but there was a bucket of water on standby.

Other countries were always going to be uninterested in resettlement deals: John Howard had failed to press Tampa passengers onto the Timorese more than a decade earlier. The Coalition can hardly be faulted here – they have been willing to consider almost anywhere, at almost any price, with not much luck. The handful of asylum seekers “resettled” in Cambodia cost about $10 million each, an impressive piece of diplomatic fleecing to put two homeless men in Phnom Penh.

By 2015 Australia was even investigating sending Hazara Afghans to Kyrgyzstan, a country to which they could have fled on foot. The idea that resettlement would somehow be easy, or even possible, had an obvious flaw: if third-option countries were willing or able to resettle refugees, they would have been first-option countries in the first place. Labor mainly confected anger that these negotiations happened in private, as if megaphone diplomacy could overcome regional sensitivities. Exactly how “accountability” and “transparency” were relevant to these unconsummated games of geopolitical footsy was unclear, but it was worth mentioning them.

Really, the ALP was exercising a crude calculus: that the harsh policy would win more votes in western Sydney than it would lose in inner-city seats. They might lose out to the Greens in Melbourne, but in Sydney a cordon of charisma made up of Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese would hold. So far, this calculation has been right. It goes back to Kim Beazley’s weakness in the Tampa election and, before that, to Paul Keating’s creation of mandatory detention. Inner-city voters might rage on social media about the inhumanity of it all, but are reluctant to punish its co-authors.

They instead play a kind of fantasy football version of politics, where the “real” Tanya Plibersek doesn’t support any of this, but is forced to bend to the will of racist voters somewhere far away. The “real” Tanya Plibersek is the one on Q&A or getting warm receptions at writers’ festivals: thoughtful, dignified and decent. The hawkish politician who wrings her hands while supporting offshore processing is treated like a hostage reading a statement from her kidnappers. John Howard was so effective at welding his image to harsh asylum politics that the progressive public can pretend Labor is an innocent party. The truth is, Labor are the architects of mandatory detention, then and now.

Just as the real Tanya Plibersek supports offshore detention whatever the “real” Tanya Plibersek does, so too do ALP votes, wherever they’re lodged. The bipartisanship on this issue makes them no different to Coalition voters. There’s something desperate, when you think about it, about the inner-city left blaming outer-suburb racists for the ALP’s bind, while voting in exactly the same way, decrying the supposedly intractable racism of Australians, while simultaneously endorsing it at the ballot box.

That situation cannot continue. The humanitarian disaster on Manus is now unignorable and unsupportable. No person of conscience can vote for it, or a party responsible for it, and those who call themselves humanitarians have to vote on the basis of policies, not platitudes. The Labor Party needs to be penalised for its culpability, and metropolitan seats offer the prospect of more than a protest vote. Few things wound the pride of the ALP more than one of their seats turning Green, and losses in Sydney especially would prove once and for all that the politics of cruelty comes at a cost – not just to the innocent people tortured by them.

Will it happen, though? So far this resolve has remained weak in the face of personal affability, as though many voters can’t quite link good people and bad things. The ALP will win government anyway at some point. Manus will be closed, and Bill Shorten or someone else will take credit for cleaning up the mess his party created in the first place. Too late for the broken people in detention, but not too late for some collar-tugging self-congratulation. There is still a chance to create transparency and accountability for the future. The alternative is a compassionate citizenry remaining “deeply concerned” – and we all know what that achieves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "False Labor and the birth of Manus". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.