The leak of the Trump-Turnbull conversation shows that the Australian PM not only doesn’t have a plan B for his government’s offshore detention system: he doesn’t have a plan A, writes Andrew P Street.
It speaks volumes for the state of the Liberal-National Coalition government in Australia that the leaking of a transcript of the notorious phone call between US president Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in which Turnbull was revealed to have lied about the proposed refugee-definitely-not-a-swap deal, was largely seen as a plus for the Australian government.
Sure, it showed Turnbull never thought that the men on Manus Island, an impoverished island that’s part of Papua New Guinea, were going to be resettled and that the whole thing was a smokescreen to hide the government’s culpability in human rights atrocities in our offshore detention system. But heck, maybe it would grab the headlines away from the many, many other disasters threatening to bring the government down, most notably the internal ructions over how hard to fight the inevitability of same sex marriage.
If that was the hope, it was a forlorn one. The threat of marriage equality remains a running sore for the government, despite regular assurances that it’s not a top tier issue for voters. Unfortunately the things that are top tier issues for voters – affordable housing, cheaper energy, action on climate change and a working national broadband system – also aren’t casting the government in a great light, let alone a competent one.
In a nutshell: the transcript shows Turnbull patiently explaining to Trump that the people in offshore detention are no threat and haven’t done anything wrong (Trump sounds unconvinced, very reasonably assuming that Australia wouldn’t lock people up for no reason) and that while Australia remains committed to taking refugees from central America as per the deal cut with the Obama administration, Trump is under no obligation to take a single person.
“[T]he agreement… does not require you to take 2,000 people. It does not require you to take any … You can decide to take them or to not take them after vetting. You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to only go through the process … This is a big deal. It is really, really important to us that we maintain it. It does not oblige you to take one person that you do not want.”
Trump, for his part, wasn’t having a bar of it. “We are not taking anybody in, those days are over… You have brokered many a stupid deal in business and I respect you, but I guarantee that you broke many a stupid deal. This is a stupid deal. This deal will make me look terrible.”
And this has come as a bit of a surprise to the people held in detention for whom resettlement in the US has remained the only option before them.
The situation up until now seemed to have a major flaw in that the camp on Manus Island was being actively dismantled while the inhabitants await their “extreme vetting” – vetting which we now know doesn’t necessarily lead to a single person being resettled.
And this is an issue because the options available to the men can be reduced to one: stay in Papua New Guinea. Not that PNG have any intention of supporting them to do so – they have neither the resources for the job nor any enthusiasm for cleaning up Australia’s mess – but neither are they in a position to deport them (to where?) or to imprison them. After all, being imprisoned without charge is illegal under the PNG constitution, which is the reason the camp is being closed in the first place.
The problem is that Australia has even less intention of cleaning up Australia’s mess. Our newly minted Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has made clear that the options for the men on Manus are to return to their country of origin – which in most cases are countries which have no intention of taking the men back (Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan, for example) and to which it would be dangerous to travel.
There was a time where we could smirk at the ridiculousness of sending people back to war zones was considered safe enough for the detainees, but too dangerous for the Australian officials obliged to travel with them. That no longer seems quite so amusing now.
So the people on Manus Island are almost certainly going to be left there to make their own way as best they can. The problem is that they can’t leave, and that they will be murdered if they stay.
The locals tolerated the camp while it was a big local employer that paid Australia-level wages in an impoverished region. The Manus Regional Processing Centre was effectively subsidising the entire local economy, and it’s closing. There are already reports of locals attacking refugees with machetes, and at the moment those still in the camp are refusing to leave even as the power, water and supplies are cut off on the perfectly accurate grounds that they have nowhere to go.
It would be great to say that Australia has been appalled at having their assumptions confirmed, but the treatment of asylum seekers in far away camps has long stopped being a hot button issue for most voters.
Still, the cack-handed mismanagement of this matter is yet another black mark against a struggling government who are likely to have their arses handed to them at the polls – which will be cold comfort for the men facing a horrifyingly uncertain future on Manus.
Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-built, Sydney-based author, columnist, podcaster and editor. He’s responsible for The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat (2016), as well as the regular View from the Street column in the Sydney Morning Herald. His work has appeared internationally in the Guardian, Time Out, NME, Rolling Stone and anywhere else there are freelance dollars to absorb.
• How do you spend your days?
In a haze of disorganisation and barely contained panic.
• Why is writing important to you?
This is going to sound impossibly pretentious, but I’ve always been obsessed with language in general and writing in particular. It’s the closest thing to time travel and mind reading we’ve got.
• What drove you to focus on journalism & writing?
Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?
Pure accident. My band had dropped a demo into dB Magazine, a music’n’culture street press mag in Adelaide and I ended up getting to know their music editor; he ran into me at a Robyn Hitchcock gig held at a record store in which I occasionally worked and said the immortal sentence “you didn’t pay to get in, so write me a review.” I started contributing pieces and a few years later I was music editor.
Eventually it dawned on me that this writing lark wasn’t a sideline I was doing while waiting for my band to take of but was what I laughingly refer to as my career.
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Caffeine, panic and deadlines. And the admittedly optimistic hope that what I write will help solidify a reader’s own thoughts, and that I’m not just screaming impotently into an endless black void.
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That corporations have moved faster than governments in determining the parameters of policy; That poverty has been reframed in the west as being a moral failing, not a consequence of economic systems, and that the developing world are somehow responsible for their own situation.
That the larger industrialised countries are using poor regions as a proxy war for their own geopolitical ambitions.
• If you hadn’t become a journalist what would you have done?
I fell into journalism while I was trying and failing at other things, so I assume I’d still be trying to be an astrophysicist indie rock star. In Adelaide, which is not a town notoriously rich in indie rock/astrophysics opportunities.
• What led us to this moment in history?
I’d love to put a pithy answer like “unfettered greed”, but I think it’s probably something more messy like the growing realisation that staggeringly enormous global problems - climate change, displacement of populations, global inequality - are far too complex to be solved by individual governments with terms of three to five years, but are definitely able to be used as wedges for local political gain. The hardening of “left” and “right” into weird, inconsistent dogmas hasn’t helped either.
Seriously, how do right wing governments reconcile the idea that poverty is an individual’s problem, but their sexuality or fertility is something in which the state has a right to intervene?
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Don’t let a single section of the economy get so powerful that it can act with impunity, secure in the certainty that they’ll never be held responsible for their predatory, irresponsible actions.
• Can you list some ‘Baby Steps’ out of the current economic mess?
In Australia we obviously need to roll back the use of housing as a legal tax haven. It’s political kryptonite because there’ll be losers from that, but there are losers from doing nothing - and at the moment those losers are less electorally valuable.
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Universal education, universal healthcare including access to safe abortion, rapid reduction in use of fossil fuels. That’s after getting Guided By Voices to play my inauguration, obviously.
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See my earlier answer about being an astrophysicist indie rock star.
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My late father. He would be amazed with the way things have turned out in the last three decades, it’d be nice to let him know what I’ve been up to since last we spoke. Also, he was a tall, strong man with an engineering background so he’d quite possibly be able to rig something up with the ski lift, or at the very least be a marvellously warm man to hug.
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You know my earlier answer about hoping that my writing helps galvanise reader’s own thoughts? I had a lot of ideas about politics and economics which hadn’t really coalesced into a proper worldview until I read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘God Bless You Mr Rosewater’, which articulated them so elegantly and clearly. The entire thing is basically a humanist manifesto, but his proposed speech to newborns still kills me. I recited it to my son when he turned up: “There’s only one rule I know of, babies: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind”.
• What would you do differently if you were to start all over again?
Oh god, pretty much everything. I like where I am now, but I took a stupidly inefficient path to get here. Then again, I’d not have met my wife or had my son without travelling this way, so I take that all back.
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God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
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