Marcus Stephen, President of Nauru, has reportedly said he would be happy for the Australian government to reopen the processing centre in his country, and to sign the UN Refugee Convention.
This dovetails rather neatly with Tony Abbott’s declarations of a few days before, and puts Julia Gillard in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, here is a country apparently willing to do what East Timor is reluctant to consider, and to reject the offer in favour of an entirely new centre looks not only pig-headed but also open up the government to criticisms about ‘wasteful’ and ‘unnecessary’ spending. On the other, accepting such an offer would expose Gillard to accusations of back-flipping and ‘me-too’. (And just an observation about this last phrase – when did it become a point of criticism for political parties to agree on an approach??)
On the face of it, Nauru’s offer is attractive. It saves money, and with the convention signed, Labor’s principal objection is countered. But is that the whole story?
Stephen was interviewed by David Speers on PM Agenda yesterday, and some rather interesting things came out. Nauru never signed the Refugee Convention because, apparently, the Howard government never asked it to do so. If not being a signatory would prove an obstacle to re-opening the centre (with Australian funding), then Stephen said he was happy to change that status. Now call me picky, but the idea that signing the Covention is being considered for what are apparently purely monetary reasons does not exactly fill me with confidence. There is also the unpleasant fact that merely signing the Convention will not guarantee compliance with its provisions. That can only be assured with vigilant monitoring. Still, that Nauru is prepared to do this at least seems to indicate a willingness to come to the party.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, for his part, said he was pleased that Nauru was considering signing the Convention, but that the government was committed to pursuing talks with East Timor. Realistically, there was little else he could say. To immediately abandon talks with East Timor would not only be politically damaging, but could also harm relations with that country.
Asked about whether he would be willing to look at hosting a regional centre, President Stephen said he’d keep ‘an open mind’. He pointed out that the centre was currently being used for government offices and a high school, but that could be changed. Just how this change would happen was not explored, but presumably would involve a considerable amount of expense. The implication is that Australia would pay for that, as well as refurbishing the centre itself and its ongoing running costs. And speaking of those costs, Stephen said he has ‘no idea’ what it cost under the Pacific Solution – he claimed, in fact, that everything was run by Australia and the UNHCR, and that there was little communication between governments. Speers offered the figure of $1million per month. Stephen could not confirm.
He did come out strongly against the idea that the centre had been unfit accommodations, claiming that the refugees were so well-treated that Nauruans used to joke that perhaps they should become asylum seekers. Those housed in the centre had access to a lifestyle that would be the envy of many people. This directly contradicts evidence (including photographs) given to the official inquiry, as well as observations by aid workers, human rights lawyers and those kept in detention there. Stephen blames the media, and says they should have come out to Nauru to see for themselves – yet his government complied with Australian requests to restrict access to the camps. There is clearly more than a little historical revision going on here, probably designed to make Nauru appear as attractive as possible. The idea of the Nauru centre as a ‘unique fixer-upperer opportunity’, however, is very difficult to sell.