Danielle Romanes is a research assistant in the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.
So are we. Over the last week The Interpreter has hosted a raft of posts on the so-called PNG Solution, with opinions from observers in all corners. Here's a selection from The Interpreter and other places.
The emerging consensus is that Kevin Rudd's change of heart on the ethics of banishing all asylum seekers to Manus Island is not so much a solution as a wriggling can of worms that promises to create far more problems than it solves. What's more, the policy involves severe reputational risk for Australia and Rudd himself.
Opening the Interpreter debate, former defence attaché to PNG Gary Hogan wrote that the PNG Solution was a powerful demonstration of the way Australia's aid largesse allows it to pull political strings in PNG to an extent enjoyed in no other recipient country. But the deal actually represents a considerable win for PNG's leadership too, as prominent PNG political commentator Deni To Kunai has pointed out.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has put the total realignment of Australian aid at the forefront of bilateral dealings since he rose to power in 2011, and now claims to have pulled off a feat that every preceding prime minister has sought but not achieved. How much change in aid delivery this actually portends is questionable, but as Jenny Hayward-Jones wrote, if the arrangement does work as a deterrent, O'Neill will have secured a chunk of additional aid and more leverage with the Australian Government, and will not have to do much in return.
As for the plan's feasibility, Dr Khalid Khoser wrote that the plan is likely to work as a deterrent, though it won't do so immediately, nor entirely. The PNG Solution is brutal but elegant, in the sense that its message is clear, easily communicated, and unequivocally punitive enough to make prospective asylum seekers seriously question making the trip. But at what cost? Khoser warns the PNG Solution threatens Australia's hard-earned reputation as a constructive multilateralist, which until now has allowed it to punch well above its weight in international affairs.
The PNG Solution has its defenders. Stephen Jones MP said in The Guardian that 'Many have characterised this shift as political morality being mugged by populist political expedience. They are wrong. This is genuine ethical dilemma being mugged by practical experience.' And Greg Sheridan wrote that 'PNG is a peaceful democracy and a signatory of the convention. The idea that it is an unfit place for refugees and failed asylum-seekers is absurd.'
Other commentators have focused on the on-ground realities that will complicate (to put it mildly) the PNG Solution's roll-out. The lack of specificity on costings and logistics from both governments is worrying, and few see much credibility in the claim that refugees can be resettled in PNG, given the scarcity of jobs, public services and housing, the legal impediments, the complicated nature of land tenure, the well-documented institutional weaknesses and the inadequacies in PNG's existing refugee processing infrastructure. Recent legislative overhauls mean that the political instability which has characterised PNG in the past is unlikely to threaten the PNG Solution.
Perhaps Rudd hopes that logistical problems never need come into the matter if the deterrent is publicised loudly and scarily enough to stop people from coming in the first place. In this respect the Australian media has done much of Rudd's work for him. Few will have come away from this week with a favourable image of PNG. Such capitalising on misinformation and ignorance about PNG in Australia is an unsavoury stroke of genius that will undermine PNG's efforts to improve its reputation as a tourist and investment destination, and will lower the tone of bilateral relations.
What does this entail for Rudd's standing in PNG? Rudd's historic visit to the country in 2008 followed swift upon his (first) rise to the prime ministership and made good on an election promise to heal relations that had fractured under his predecessor. Rudd touched down in Port Moresby and was greeted as a rock star. Flags were waved. His name was called. Babies were named in his honour.
Rudd's enthusiasm for PNG flickered and waned in the following years, but his popularity there never did. As PNG commentator Martyn Namorong wrote, Papua New Guinean relationships are best defined by the cultural narrative of tribalism, and in 2008 Rudd made himself a member of the tribe. Until last week this was seen as a positive, but the decision-making processes behind the PNG Solution reflect many of the most corrosive elements of Big Men politics (the lack of consultation and public debate not least) that Rudd and O'Neill have taken on board, to the detriment of PNG's democracy and governance. Many Papua New Guineans are deeply unhappy with Rudd and their leadership, and will be making their voices heard in the weeks to come.