Australia's frontier policy is supposed to be compassionate - designed to deter journeys by desperate people who end up subject to exploitation and the dangers of the sea. Nevertheless it has profoundly harmed people in the nation's name, and people are still coming anyway
It was Kevin Rudd who, desperate to minimise the scale of Labor's defeat in the 2013 election, took the punitive policy of indefinite offshore detention embraced by both sides of politics to a new level, declaring those processed on Manus and Nauru would never be settled in Australia.
Now the mindset of the Coalition (and Labor) is that any deviation from this position will be a "green light" to the people-smuggling trade and trigger an armada of boats from Indonesia.
The difference is that Labor says it would actively pursue a "pathway to permanent migration in a resettlement country" for those on Manus and Nauru, while the Coalition has comprehensively failed in this area.
Not only is the Coalition opposed to resettlement of those on Nauru and Manus in New Zealand, on the grounds that it would be possible for refugees to make it to Australia (a position shared by Labor), it says the only option for those on Nauru is Cambodia, one of the poorest countries on earth. As for those on PNG, it says the only option is PNG, where danger is ever present for outsiders and most would have no prospect whatsoever of earning enough money for immediate family members to ever join them. The result of this is that the mental state of those in limbo on Nauru and Manus is far worse than was the case for those who spent as much time on Nauru under John Howard's "Pacific Solution".
Australian and PNG officials are now in negotiations that Australia hopes will find a way to keep the centre going. In a Tuesday statement the two governments said they’d continue “to work together on a road map”, meeting “regularly in the coming weeks”, which suggests the matter is being pushed safely beyond the election.
The government and the opposition are bipartisan on offshore processing. When it arises, the issue plays in favour of the Coalition, but it is not one Malcolm Turnbull seems naturally comfortably with. For political reasons Labor obviously tries to avoid it. That means the government isn’t being held to serious account – despite efforts by the Greens – in the way it is on much more minor matters.
In her valedictory speech on Wednesday, Labor MP Melissa Parke described the present system as “a festering wound that is killing off people and eroding our national character and respect”. Some in Labor are deeply unhappy and a few have been recently vocal about the ALP’s approach, but most don’t want the boat rocked.
As for the Liberals, those who used to speak up for asylum seekers have either left the parliament or gone quiet.
It is also not unusual in PNG for governments to do the wrong thing and only correct their actions when ordered to by the Supreme Court. And sometimes not even then; the illegal ousting of the Prime Minister in 2011 has still not been rectified even after several Supreme Court decisions on the matter.
However the detention of asylum seekers (or illegal immigrants depending on which side of the fence you sit), has hardly galvanised sentiment in the PNG public except among politicians and lawyers and those on Manus.
In fact, most Papua New Guineans could not care less about the whole issue.In my hometown of Wewak, the entire population is focused on simply getting on with life in these hard economic times. Next door in Madang, they are just recovering from an ethnic clash which shut the place down. Similar stories can be found all around the country.
This is what happens when you are ranked 158 out of 170 odd countries in the United Nations Human Development Index (Australia is ranked 2). We are very much inward looking and worried about our own problems.
The unanimous court ruling and the PNG government’s response are fitting in so many ways.
It’s fitting that PNG sovereignty, so often used as a shield by successive Australian governments to fend off criticism of the Manus camp, has now become the sword, striking a blow to the core of the current detention arrangements.
It’s fitting, too, that the rule of law has finally managed to reach the Manus facility, despite the great lengths and expense Australia has gone to in the hope of keeping its remote offshore camps beyond legal and democratic scrutiny (including funding the PNG government’s defense to similar legal challenges in the past.)
There’s also something fitting about the fact that the case was commenced by an opposition MP. Deliberate harm to innocent people seeking asylum has been a highly contested political issue in PNG. The contrast to the meek bipartisanship Australians have become accustomed to on this issue couldn’t be starker.
Most of all, the Supreme Court ruling is fitting because it finds that what we know is cruel, harmful, and fundamentally unjust is also illegal.
No doubt the Supreme Court’s decision and subsequent announcement from the PNG government will give the men languishing on Manus some hope. And so it should – the implications are huge. Right now 900 men are being illegally detained. Every one of them must be released.
The question is to where.
Whatever the outcome of the situation on Manus Island, the threat that future asylum seekers will be interned permanently in PNG no longer looks convincing. Transferring the 850 people in the Manus facility to the centre on Nauru would exhaust its capacity. With no other site in prospect for second-country processing, people smugglers will find it easier to persuade prospective clients that they will stay in Australia while their claims are processed.
So it will be surprising if asylum seeker boats do not reappear in Australian waters over the next few months.
And they might be all the more likely to do so because of the forthcoming federal election. With the prime minister expected to call a double dissolution election before next week, the government will enter caretaker mode. Major new policies, such as negotiating new offshore locations for assessment centres will be put on hold. New options to repair the damage suffered by the policy will have to await the outcome of the July 2 poll.
Consequently, people smugglers will have a few months of opportunity in which to resurrect their trade. Any upsurge in boat arrivals will have to be handled by Border Force and the Australian Defence Force through an attenuated chain of command. Caretaker conventions indicate that any unusual action should require consultation with the opposition. Unilateral ministerial actions may well become a campaign issue, perhaps placing Commonwealth officials in an invidious position. PNG will respond to its imperatives regardless of Australia's election schedules. There could be plenty of scope for confusion, miscalculation or tragedy.