"Here's looking at you, kid." But what does Jacinda Ardern see when she looks at the Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull? A friend and ally? The dissimulating representative of an arrogant and aggressive regional bully? Or, the ruthless commandant of a terrifying collection of fetid tropical concentration camps?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN when otherwise intelligent people look at something – and don’t see it? How do people train themselves to misperceive – and therefore misrepresent – the reality before their eyes?
Paul Simon’s song, ‘The Boxer’, explains it like this:
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises. All lies and jest.
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
Faced with the deepening humanitarian crisis on Manus Island, why is the New Zealand Government, like the boxer, only seeing what it wants to see, and disregarding the rest?
What should our new government be seeing?
First and foremost, it should see the Australian Government’s policy on illegal immigration by sea as an exercise in imposing immediate cruelty to achieve long-term kindness. Assailed by the victims of corrupt criminal enterprises: the desperate men, women and children being sent out in flimsy boats, foundering on the high seas and drowning; successive Australian Governments have embarked upon a programme of extreme deterrence.
Refugees and economic migrants attempting to circumvent Australia’s official immigration policies, by sailing there illegally, will be treated with the utmost harshness. Without the slightest regard for age or gender, they will be interned in fetid tropical concentration camps; brutally mistreated; and informed, coldly, that under no circumstances will the Australian Government ever permit them, or their offspring, to set foot on Australian soil.
And, it’s worked. The terrifying example presented to potential “boat people” by the inhabitants of the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres has had the desired effect. The criminal middle-men have found fewer and fewer individuals and families willing to pay them the huge sums of money they had previously been able to demand for a journey to Australian shores. People smuggling has become uneconomic. The leaky boats have stopped sailing and their passengers have stopped dying.
When criticised, the Australian Government simply points to the situation in the Mediterranean. The European Union’s “humanitarian” policy of rescuing and receiving boat people has resulted in a huge expansion of people-smuggling. Every week, thousands of refugees and illegal migrants set sail from North Africa for Spain and Italy. Of those thousands, many hundreds – men, women and children – drown at sea.
On 17 June 2017, the British e-newspaper, The Independent, reported that: “More than 2,000 migrants have died attempting treacherous boat crossings to Europe so far this year”. That number must now be approaching 4,000.
These are the numbers that the Australian Government points to as justification for the astonishing cruelty of its policies. The so-called “Pacific Solution” may not be pretty to look at, runs the official argument, but it saves lives. Mothers’ lives. Children’s lives. “If we gave in to the demands of our critics,” say the Australian authorities, “we wouldn’t just have detainees, we’d have blood, on our hands!”
In the authorities’ eyes, the actions of the Australian navy, in intercepting the people-smugglers’ vessels and towing them back to their departure points; and the harsh internment regimes subsidised by the Australian state; are not only the delivery mechanisms for effective policy, but they are also entirely morally defensible. By their reckoning, it is the “humanitarian” NGOs; the groups which insist on “saving” the boat people, that have thousands of drowned human-beings on their consciences – not the Australian Government. For every boatload of refugees and illegal migrants that are “saved”: ten, twenty, thirty more overloaded and leaking death-traps are encouraged to set sail.
Faced with an adamant Australian Government which is utterly convinced that it is doing the right thing vis-à-vis illegal immigration by sea, what should the New Zealand Government do?
If we engage the Aussies in a full-scale moral debate on this issue, can we even be sure of winning it? With the example of the EU’s policy before us; and with the Australians arguably blocking the people-smuggling routes to New Zealand as well as to their own country; might we not expose ourselves to the charge of allowing our kind hearts to get in the way of the higher moral good of breaking the people-smuggling trade?
Let’s assume, however, that we are capable of refuting the Australians’ moral arguments (their policies are, after all in breach of numerous international covenants to which New Zealand remains firmly committed) what, then, should be our course of action?
Some are arguing that we should negotiate directly with the government of Papua-New Guinea. But, that really would be evidence of our diplomatic blindness! The government of Papua-New Guinea is almost entirely in the thrall of the Australian Government – its former colonial master. Ostensibly a democracy, the country is, in fact, a corrupt kleptocracy whose senior ministers are pretty-much the bought-and-paid-for playthings of Canberra. Were we to ask Port Moresby if it was willing to allow New Zealand to take 150 detainees off their hands, its officials would simply pick up the phone and ask Canberra if that would be okay. Canberra would say “No!” – and that would be that. The same applies to the supposedly independent state of Nauru – another Pacific regime morally and politically compromised by the Australians’ Pacific Solution.
All of which should tell us exactly what we are looking at when we fix our gaze on Australia.
Because it’s not just big Papua-New Guinea, and tiny Nauru, who find themselves in no position to do anything other than obey without question the dictates of Canberra. Australia may not have purchased our politicians, the way it has in other parts of the Pacific, but that’s only because they don’t need to. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is quite capable of assessing this country’s strategic economic, military and diplomatic interests without the need for Canberra to spell them out for us.
What Jacinda saw when she arrived at Kiribili House on Sunday was what she wanted to see. Our good friend and ally, the Australian prime minister. She comported herself accordingly: joshing and joking; and reporting (politely) on her Government’s response to Australia’s latest policy decisions.
Had she seen anything else: a nation able to break the New Zealand economy at will, for example, or, a regime prepared to be almost unbelievably ruthless and brutal in the pursuit of its national objectives. Had she registered a nation arming itself to the teeth in preparation for projecting “Five Eyes” power north, into the Indonesian archipelago, east, into the Pacific, and west, into the strategically vital Indian ocean, and which looks upon its “little mate”, New Zealand, as a lucrative source of economic tribute, a handy supplier of skilled labour, a cheap holiday destination, and, at need, an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” fortuitously positioned to defend Australia’s eastern flank; then what, realistically, could she have done?
Other than josh, and joke, and hope like hell that Australia never decides to treat Kiwis the way it treats the detainees on Manus Island and Nauru.
Oh, wait a minute …
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 7 November 2017.