During the visits I made to Nauru between 2005 and 2008, conducting research and offering independent support to Australia's asylum seekers, I was always aware that if the Nauruan government took a sudden dislike to me, I could be deported at their whim. This week's deportation of Nauru's only magistrate, Peter Law, and the denial of entry to Nauru's Chief Justice, Geoffrey Eames, are a timely reminder of just how arbitrarily people can be treated in Nauru, particularly if they are outsiders.

The motivation for the Nauruan government's actions is currently unclear, but if Australian citizens employed to uphold the law of a country are treated with such disdain - or as Eames puts it, ''like Tony Mokbel in a wig'' - what hope can there be for the most powerless foreigners detained inside the country?

Charging Australian journalists $8000 to apply for a Nauru visa, with no refunds for unsuccessful applications, is another recent example of a Nauruan government flexing its inflated muscles. Inevitably, the unreasonable fee will lead to suspicion that Nauru is hiding something unsavoury from international view and to the perception that Nauru is living up to its reputation as a corrupt and unethical player. But while the money keeps rolling in from Australia, the Nauruan government doesn't seem to care.

Many Nauruans are uncomfortable with the country's dependency on Australian aid and others remain resentful of what they see as Australia's exploitation over past royalties from phosphate mining. Some feel entitled to take whatever they can from their richer neighbour. As one Nauruan wrote to me, Nauru has ''already been ravaged and exploited enough times by Australia and Australians'' - a view I heard expressed many times during visits to Nauru. Others voiced their resentment towards asylum seekers, who they felt were less deserving of help than Nauruans.

When agreements on asylum seekers are signed with Nauru, any leverage Australia may have had as Nauru's aid donor goes out the window. In Prime Minister Tony Abbott's desperation to live up to his political promise on asylum seekers to the Australian electorate, he has again cast Australia as the dependent player in the relationship.

Back in 2006 when John Howard was sending asylum seekers to Nauru, the Australian government couldn't even guarantee access for its own officials - mental health experts and its spy agency - who were twice refused entry to the country as planes tried to land.

While watching the less powerful Nauruans standing up to the big boys from Australia did provide some entertainment at the time - especially for powerless asylum seekers detained in Nauru for many years - it was also disconcerting to see how randomly power could be wielded in Nauru, often to make a political point.

Although I was ultimately allowed to visit the country numerous times, I was also refused entry on many occasions, for no obvious reason. It often felt like I was dealing with a dysfunctional Australian council rather than with the government of a nation state.

Politicians in Nauru are elected in the hope that they will resist abusing the privilege of office, as many have before them. But in a country where allegiances seem to shift daily and presidents are removed at an alarming rate, the political bitterness between players in the small country and the temptation to maintain power at any cost can be great.

When Australia signs agreements for detaining asylum seekers in Nauru, we know that the lives of vulnerable people are being placed in the hands of an often unpredictable and potentially unstable government. And when, after being jostled and pushed by police at the airport, a respected magistrate says that he would ''get better treatment in the Congo'', how can we be sure that the most vulnerable from around the world are not being treated in the same way?

The effect of the recent chaos on the processing of refugee claims in Nauru is now unclear. But decisions seem likely to be further delayed and the people detained in those centres must today be feeling the weight of greater uncertainty. For them, justice is something that is now being kept well out of their reach.

On one of my visits to Nauru in 2005, the current Justice Minister, David Adeang, told me Nauru was not a police state. Adeang, the then foreign minister, was responding to my concerns about comments made to me during a previous visit. But in light of the latest developments, including the resignation of the country's solicitor-general, the rule of law in Nauru is now clearly threatened.

The care of asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru is ultimately Australia's responsibility. The people held in Nauru should be brought to Australia to undergo processing of their claims, and the Abbott government needs to stop washing its hands of events that threaten its political agenda. As for Nauru, I guess it must be time for yet another change of government.

Susan Metcalfe is the author of The Pacific Solution (2010).