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Flawed Manus Island policy is now an embarrassment

Asylum seekers behind the wire of the Manus Island detention centre.

Asylum seekers behind the wire of the Manus Island detention centre. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Australian diplomats heading to Port Moresby call it ''Port shit-scared''.

Diplomats generally live in compounds fenced off from the local community. Before arriving in the violent, sporadically lawless capital, they are schooled in what not to do, where not to go. Many are trained in how to drive to avert car-jacking or worse. High-speed reversing and performing J-turns are hardly a skills one normally needs in a peaceful democracy.

And this is for a posting in the capital where the police presence is strongest, civil society most developed, and the rule of law most obvious. In the regions, where infrastructure is rudimentary, the coercive apparatus of state exerts less influence. The vacuum is filled by poverty, violence, and corruption. PNG is a borderline failed state.

Yet this is the country Kevin Rudd, in his second desperate incarnation as prime minister, decided should assume Australia's international obligations to protect and permanently resettle asylum seekers arriving by boat. With this week's fatal riots at the Manus Island immigration detention facility, the abject moral bankruptcy of that decision has been laid bare.

Labor's muted response to the crisis engulfing the Manus Island facility and the policy under which it was established reveals another harsh reality. Brutality is a bipartisan position.

It took Rudd's boundless ambition to backflip by signing the deal with PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, but it has taken a special kind of focus from Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison to see the policy through to its current horror.

Rudd has left Parliament, but the stain of that cynical arrangement is his legacy, and that of Labor. It was struck in full knowledge of the economic limitations of PNG, its rampant police corruption, and the functional political limits of Port Moresby's authority.

Rudd hoped it would neutralise the Abbott opposition's rampaging war on Labor's failed asylum seeker policy. The opposition duly slammed the PNG plan as irrelevant and unworkable but then adopted it once in office.

No one pretends the policy of zero-admissions to Australia is not harsh - indeed, that is a central design feature, calculated to remind refugees that Australia is closed to all but those entering via the UNHCR queue. Its sole, and until now, compelling, moral justification was that by stopping the boats, the government has stopped people drowning at sea.

Yet with fatal shots fired, the policy itself has begun killing people. After 24 hours of disturbances among the hapless and hopeless 1340 asylum seekers held there, one man is dead, a dozen more are seriously injured, and another 65 were also injured. While Morrison projected his now standard contempt for accountability, held faux press conferences where he refused to answer most questions, two things have becoming increasing clear.

First is Manus Island is not just part of Operation Sovereign Borders, it is its linchpin. Without it, the whole offshore thing crumbles.

The fact that everything depends on Manus remaining online was evident by Abbott's emergency chat with O'Neill after the first incident on Monday night. The Australian PM was reassured that PNG was still solid. The spectre of First World Australia craning in desperation to retain the acquiescence of its impoverished neighbour is an embarrassment and reveals the structural flaw at the heart of the policy.

The second thing is that with the riots on Manus, there is a powerful sense of deja vu. Riots, hunger strikes, suicides and dysfunctional behaviour were all products of indefinite detention in the remote on-shore camps of the early 2000s.

This is the future now for those banished to Manus and Nauru.

If asylum seekers are attributed no other virtue, their ability to conceptualise a better future must at least be acknowledged.

Why else would any risk their lives? Indefinite detention is designed to obliterate that future. And we know how that ends.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent.

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