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Peter Dutton delivers a new low with comments on Manus Island rampage

Peter Dutton has stooped to a new low, even as he seeks to impose higher standards on prospective Australian citizens. 

A week after it unfolded, Dutton has delivered his take on the Good Friday attack by drunken PNG soldiers on refugees at the Manus Island detention centre funded and run by Australia.

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Manus rampage sparked by child-safety fears: Dutton

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton offered a new account of recent Manus rampage in an interview on Sky News.

The clear implication of his words is that the behaviour of refugees towards a small boy was the catalyst for the attack that re-traumatised those who witnessed mayhem and murder at the centre in 2014.

This is a gross over-reach on two counts. Firstly, it pre-empts the investigation police are conducting into the rampage, which included firing at the accommodation where scores of asylums seekers were seeking cover.

Police have said the rampage was sparked by an altercation at the soccer pitch in the navy base that surrounds the camp, that the soldiers were drunk, and that immigration officials, police, (Australian) service providers and asylum seekers assaulted.

Secondly, it demonises the detainees and inflames tensions that have been simmering on Manus Island for months. On both counts, it is irresponsible.

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"There was an alleged incident where three asylum seekers were alleged to be leading a local five-year-old boy back toward the facility and there was a lot of angst around that," Dutton told Sky News.

"I think there was concern about why the boy was being led, or for what purpose he was being led away, back to the regional processing centre, so I think it's fair to say the mood had elevated quite quickly."

One problem with this unsubstantiated allegation, with its implication of an intent to sexually abuse a child, is that police on Manus Island were unaware of it.

Another is that the suggestion of nefarious conduct is rejected by the asylum seekers, who say a boy who asked for money outside the centre almost two weeks ago was invited to come and get some fruit from inside the centre by asylum seekers.

On their account, the boy would have passed a guard house at the Oscar compound gate where local and Australian guards were working and was captured on CCTV cameras as he waited outside Oscar compound tent number one while the asylum seekers placed fruit in two plastic bags.

"Dutton should get his facts right and stop inflaming the situation," says local MP Ron Knight. "You would expect him to be trying to solve the problem instead of causing it to explode."

Dutton also suggested those who live in the navy base that surrounds the centre were angry about "another alleged sexual assault". But this comment is problematic, too.

Provincial police commander David Yapu confirmed that two men had been charged with sexual assault since asylum seekers were able to visit the province's only town, although in both cases those charged insist they are innocent. What about the principle of being innocent until proven guilty?

More broadly, Inspector Yapu told me two days before the rampage: "As far as I'm concerned, the movement of the asylum seekers within the town is quiet and peaceful and mixing with the local community. We are not getting reports of them being involved in illegal activities."

So why would Dutton, a former copper, seek to pre-empt the investigation and apportion blame on the detainees whose motivation, he suggests, is to cause trouble because their plan to come to Australia was thwarted?

Perhaps to deflect attention from the real question: why has Australia been so slow to find durable solutions for those it placed in an unsustainable situation and remove a source of tension from a peaceful province in PNG?

The Immigration Minister began his remarks on Sky News on Thursday by noting that the rampage was being investigated by PNG police and the PNG defence force and "we are best to wait and see what that uncovers".

A prudent minister would have left it at that.

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