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Manus Island: why we can’t keep our noses out of it

In order to be a good friend we don’t owe Australia our loyalty – we owe them honesty, writes Graham Cameron.

The deputy prime minister of Australia, Barnaby Joyce, is grumpy with Jacinda Ardern because she offered a place to 150 of those refugees that Australia illegally imprisoned and then abandoned on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

He was so grumpy that he threatened us on Newstalk ZB, saying: “I think it’s best if you stay away from another country’s business. I find that. Otherwise they’ll return the favour at a time they think is most opportune for them.”

The implication is that our special relationship requires loyalty. Not honesty, not accountability, not encouraging the other to be their best.

But Joyce’s threat is empty. Australia has already returned the “favour” with its 2014 Migration Act changes. New Zealanders are the single largest group in Australia’s off shore detention centres awaiting deportation. They’ve also denied New Zealanders citizenship rights. The Special Character Visa has ensured the 650,000 New Zealand citizens in Australia are second class citizens: no voting rights; no access to support or benefits; no access to tertiary education subsidies; doubtful access to insurance.

Tāngata whenua particularly pay the cost of Joyce’s favours. A wildly disproportionate number of those awaiting deportation are Māori. Māori are 23% of the New Zealand citizens in Australia (a far higher percentage than in Aotearoa New Zealand) and suffering from the lack of support particularly in health and education.

Deportations, fewer rights for New Zealand citizens and human rights abuses on Manus Island are a disturbing pattern that, as a friend, we have to challenge. What we want is an Australian government committed to human rights because that is an Australian government that looks after New Zealanders.

However it seems to me that Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand have the kind of special relationship that I speak against in men’s anti-violence groups. Australia expects Aotearoa New Zealand to shut up, put up and do what it’s told.

In Joyce’s world, international relations means letting the neighbours do whatever they like as long as it doesn’t affect you. In Joyce’s world the United Nations are sticky beaks making comments about things that don’t concern them.

That might be the current Australian government’s impoverished position, but it is not the position of the New Zealand government. We have a long proud history of sticking our beaks into other people’s business where that business is abusive or unjust.

In 1945, Aotearoa New Zealand noted there were no references to human rights and fundamental freedoms in the proposed United Nations Charter and moved for their inclusion. Today the purpose of the United Nations in the Charter is: “To achieve international co-operation in solving problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

Since then, we have been an ardent supporter of international covenants and declarations, of the role of the United Nations, of the authority of international law and of the unalienable rights of human beings everywhere. Including on Manus Island.

Our prime minister should not, as suggested by Gerry Brownlee, “get off Australia’s back about its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island.” He demonstrates as callous and uninformed a view of international relations as his mate Joyce.

Aotearoa New Zealand is seen as a leader on human rights and fundamental freedoms. When we have chaired the Security Council, we’ve been regarded as an even-handed player.

So our prime minister stands in the tradition of New Zealand human rights leadership when she says she is concerned about Manus Island.

Australia are breaking international laws: it is illegal to coerce asylum seekers to return to countries where they were persecuted. When a country has effective control over the lives of people then it is responsible for what happens to them, even if they’ve moved them off shore; the lack of facilities, lack of medical care and discipline used in the detention centres amounts to torture.

Neither should we as New Zealand citizens “get off Australia’s back”. In particular, our whānau in Australia who are trying to gain access to their loved ones awaiting deportation need to see that Manus Island and the injustice of New Zealanders deportations are two sides of the same coin.

The coin is commitment to human rights. We have an obligation to speak out about Manus Island even though it is our mate who is doing it because it is a domino effect. The abuses start with undesirable refugees, then will find their way to deportation centres with ‘criminal’ New Zealanders languishing in them, and will then find their way to second class New Zealand citizens doing life in Australia.

Once you have decided some groups have less human rights than others, then it is easy to make that decisions about more groups.

Jacinda, Kelvin and all the rest, keep speaking about Manus Island, about deportations, about New Zealanders’ rights. Let’s see if we can encourage our friend and neighbour to get back on the straight and narrow. That’s what friends are for.


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