Silencing All Opposition: Matthew Batsiua, one of five opposition MPs expelled from the Nauruan Parliament for challenging the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Baron Waqa, is arrested for leading a protest demonstration against its latest crackdown on free speech and the Internet. While Australia, in the name of its brutal "Pacific Solution", is poisoning Nauru's democratic institutions, New Zealand looks on in silence.
CORRUPTION IS LIKE POISON. Once inside your system it immediately starts attacking your defences. Eventually, if nothing is done to counteract its effects, it kills you. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, situated approximately 4,000 kilometres north of Auckland, has been corrupted by Australia. Slowly but surely, its democratic institutions are being poisoned.
Some would argue that it all began a hundred years ago when the Australians turfed out the Germans at the beginning of the First World War. At the war’s end, Nauru was declared a League of Nations “mandate” under the joint control of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments. In reality, however, Nauru has always been an Aussie-run operation.
No one would have cared (other than the Nauruans, who weren’t consulted) had it not been for the fact that this tiny dot (just 21 square kilometres!) on the equator had, over thousands of years, accumulated hundreds-of-thousands of tons of top-quality bird shit.
Nauru’s phosphate deposits were among the purest in the world, a fact which conferred upon the hapless island territory the dangerous status of “strategic possession”. Ruthlessly extracted for use as fertiliser, Nauru’s phosphate deposits would, between 1920 and 1980, transform New Zealand’s farms into some of the most productive agricultural units on earth.
The Nauruans were not permitted to get their hands on this crucial resource until the late 1960s. For a few fat years the newly independent republic of Nauru waxed affluent on its rapidly dwindling guano deposits. Briefly, its citizens enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes on earth. And then, suddenly, it was gone. Leaving Nauru as little more than, in David Lange’s memorable phrase: “a clapped-out quarry”.
What was Nauru to do? In 1991 it had $1.5 billion in its Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust – a not insignificant capital base for 10,000 citizens looking for a fresh start. Tragically, by 2001, corruption and mismanagement had reduced the Trust’s resources to barely $100 million. With its levels of expenditure now well in excess of its income, Nauru was broke.
And then along came the Tampa and its hundreds of rescued asylum seekers. Little Johnny Howard responded by unconscionably exploiting Australia’s most visceral racist impulses. That created an urgent political need to get the whole festering problem off Australian soil. What Howard and his Liberal Party were looking for was a nation state that was not only willing to “accommodate” Australia’s unwanted asylum-seekers, but to also put a dampener on the enthusiasm of interfering human-rights lawyers, UN rapporteurs, and investigative journalists. Thus was born the “Pacific Solution”.
The detention of the Tampa refugees was arranged with indecent haste, but the transformation of Nauru into an hermetically-sealed island of unaccountable state power was bound to take a little longer. Nauru had a perfectly serviceable democratic constitution. It belonged to the Commonwealth and was a member of the Pacific Forum. It had a respectable and responsible judiciary made up of (mostly) Australian judges. Its small, Australian-trained, police force was reasonably competent and honest. On the debit side, the country was broke, and just about everybody lucky enough to have a job worked for the Nauruan government. Politics and public administration was the country’s Achilles’ Heel. To corrupt Nauru, all Howard (or any other Australian prime minister) needed was a fistful of aid dollars – and 10 of its 19 MPs.
It has taken 14 years, off and on, but the poison is clearly working. Nauru’s decision to host Australia’s concentration camps for asylum seekers has eroded every constitutional check and balance essential to the survival of democratic institutions.
The first casualty was the Nauruan judiciary. In January 2014 the Chief Justice of Nauru, Geoffrey Eames, was expelled from the country, along with the Australian magistrate, Peter Law. With them went the rule of law in the tiny republic. The administration of justice is now in the hands of persons answerable only to the politicians. Opponents of the Government can no longer rely on the courts for protection.
The police force, too, has fallen under political control. Its inevitable involvement in the oppression of the asylum seekers has fatally compromised its personnel as impartial enforcers of the law. The Nauruan Police have abandoned their role as the the citizens’ protectors to become the Government’s enforcers. In collusion with the private security personnel responsible for keeping “order” at the refugee detention centres, police officers are increasingly regarded as people to be feared; thugs who can break the law with impunity.
The reason so little news of these derelictions filters out of Nauru is due to the ruthless censorship applied by the state-owned and operated television and radio stations. Attempting to report such matters would instantly cost any local journalist his or her job. It’s no easier for foreign journalists. President Baron Waqa and his Cabinet have imposed a mandatory, non-refundable $8,000 “bond” on every journalist attempting to enter the country. If that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm, the Nauruan immigration authorities can always arrange for them to be put on the next plane to Sydney or Auckland. Oh, and just in case young Nauruans might feel tempted to organise and communicate through social media, the Government has shut down Facebook.
Not surprisingly, with the Judiciary subverted, the Police corrupted and the news media gagged, Baron Waqa and his allies decided in June of last year that it was time to put the finishing touches to their 21 square kilometre dictatorship. This involved the suspension of all those members of the Nauruan parliament who refused to go along with Waqa’s increasingly lawless regime.
Last week, several hundred Nauruans, led by one of the suspended MPs, Matthew Batsiua, attempted to protest the Waqa Government’s ever more draconian attempts to shut down free speech and the Internet. As they approached Parliament House, the Nauruan Police (aided by security officers from the camps) waded into the crowd and a number of protesters were hurt. Batsiua, along with the opposition MPs Sprent Dabwido (a former President of Nauru) and Squire Jeremiah were later arrested and remain in custody. Another opposition MP, Roland Kun, was physically hauled off a plane due to depart for Wellington and has had his passport cancelled. The Waqa regime is apparently concerned that he will inform the outside world about what is happening in Nauru.
The silence of the Australian Government in the face of this “Lord of the Flies” descent into lawlessness and brutality is readily understood. Prime Minister Tony Abbott needs the Pacific Solution and he is fully aware that it cannot be made to work in a democratic country where the rule of law holds sway.
More difficult to understand, and harder to forgive, is the silence of our own government. The Nauruans and their phosphate may have made New Zealand rich, but that does not appear to have inspired a reciprocal determination on our part to keep them free.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 June 2015.