The detention centre on Manus Island is a hell-hole. It is made up of hot and poorly ventilated tin sheds on a tropical island. Drinking water is rationed. It is overcrowded and inmates have little or no privacy. Residents have to queue for hours at mealtimes in the stifling heat. There are inadequate health services, not enough toilets and showers, and no soap and water in the smelly latrines. Don't take my word for it - read Amnesty International's report from their visit in November 2013. They are still awaiting a response from the Immigration Minister.
The inmates in this substandard human-rights free zone are not hardened criminals. They are ordinary men who have fled persecution and danger in their homelands and tried to reach safety in Australia. Nor are they serving a sentence, at the end of which they will be freed and allowed to rebuild their lives. They are detained indefinitely, without trial, without a clear end-point, and without any hope of clemency. Their alternatives are to return to where they came from or to agree to settle in Papua New Guinea.
As all Australians know, Papua New Guinea has problems. It is one of the poorest nations in the Asia-Pacific, with massive unemployment, high rates of violent crime, chronic government instability and corruption, and significant levels of community tension and conflict. Their government has agreed to host Australia's unwanted asylum seekers in exchange for large sums of much-needed cash from the Australian Government, but many locals on Manus resent their presence and are often openly hostile. Not surprisingly, the asylum seekers detained there do not see it as a "place of safety". Not only do they refuse to accept resettlement there, they are too scared of the locals even to accept transfer to a less secure detention facility nearby.
So of course the inmates are protesting. You would protest too. Almost a year ago, protests turned violent and ended in the death of Reza Berati and injury to a number of others. This time around it seems to have been less violent. Reports about what actually happened are hazy. Media are not allowed in or around the compound, staff won't talk, there are no independent observers, inmates can only report in snatched conversations on contraband mobile phones. However, it is clear that some were refusing food and water, while others were occupying buildings. How strident were they? Was there violence or threat of violence? Who can tell?
It now seems that the protests are over. Not because the inmates gave up or called them off, but because the security guards employed by Transfield, backed by the PNG police, forcibly broke them up. How forcibly? No-one is saying. However, 40 "ringleaders" have been "isolated", which I take it to mean they are now in even more secure imprisonment somewhere else. Just when you thought it was impossible, the cycle of deterrence has ratcheted up another notch. All those unemployed guards from Guantanamo Bay know where to apply for their next job.
When the ABC's 7.30 reported on the story on January 19, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refused their invitation to comment. Instead we heard from detainees who claimed they were being denied water and food, that they wanted freedom, that they had been misled by the Australian Government and that they were frustrated and felt hopeless. We heard from the Refugee Action Collective urging Dutton and his government to "stop the madness". We heard a former staff member at the detention centre saying he didn't see how the arrangement could possibly work.
Obviously Dutton decided he needed to put his side of the story and appeared last night. It is possibly the best interview I have ever heard from Leigh Sales. She is polite, pointed and pithy, asking direct questions and not letting Dutton get away with waffle.
Dutton, on the other hand, is appalling. The only time he is clear, the message is cruel and uncompromising - none of the Manus inmates will ever settle in Australia. For the rest, he is evasive, insinuating, snide and sneaky. I was appalled at Scott Morrison's performance as Immigration Minister, but Dutton is even worse.
He suggests that the end of the protest was achieved by the use of physical force. Sales asks "what degree of force?" Dutton starts to waffle about the presence of the PNG police and the great job Transfield did. Sales repeats the question. He says it varies depending on how cooperative the people were, the whole thing was over in 15 minutes.
He tries to divert the focus from force by the security staff and police to force by the detainees, suggesting some of them have fashioned weapons. "What sort of weapons?" asks Sales. More waffle. She repeats the question. He says, "we're not talking about firearms, for example; we're talking about homemade or home-fashioned weapons." She asks again, adding "just be clear please." He says "well I'm not going into that detail" and waffles some more. She tries a different tack: "And were any injuries sustained?" Dutton says, "Well, not that I'm advised of, of a serious nature".
So that would be "yes".
Sales moves on, pointing out that Robert Cornwell's official inquiry into Berati's death identified frustrations over processing and resettlement as the root cause of the unrest. Since the same problems still exist, isn't there a risk of further riots?
Dutton tries to divert into discussing the Labor Party. Sales steers him firmly back on course, but he veers off again. Finally Sales loses patience and puts it in plain English.
LEIGH SALES: ...has anybody who has been detained under Operation Sovereign Borders yet been resettled?
PETER DUTTON: Well people have in Papua New Guinea, for argument's sake, and this is an issue for the PNG government to comment on, not us.
LEIGH SALES: So yes or no: have they been resettled?
PETER DUTTON: Well, I'm not going to comment on the immigration policy within PNG but let me put it this way: there are people...
LEIGH SALES: But this is part of your policy. It is a very simple question.
PETER DUTTON: Sure.
LEIGH SALES: Have any people who have been detained under Operation Sovereign Borders yet been resettled?
PETER DUTTON: There are people within the Manus Island processing centre at the moment who are eligible and who are transitioning, but that is an issue for the PNG government to comment on. That's not something that I will comment on.
So that would be "no".
This is the way we are governed now. Innocent and distressed people are shuffled off to a ramshackle prison camp on a distant tropical island, with no independent oversight and no media access. The locals in this impoverished community resent their presence and make no secret of the fact. They are then offered, as an alternative to spending the rest of their lives in detention, the option of settling in this community where everyone hates them. When they protest this inhumane treatment they are subjected to even worse treatment, including physical violence.
Our government regards them with so much contempt that they consider this a successful policy. They regard us with such contempt that when their actions are questioned they avoid answering reasonable and simple questions. They use children as bargaining chips to blackmail independent senators into legalising their inhumanity. The opposition, whose policy is pretty much the same, make hardly a squeak of protest. It is only people like Leigh Sales and her fellow ABC journalists, and the intrepid activists of organisations like the Refugee Action Collective, who remind us that we are talking about human beings here.
We continue to elect these people. What does that say about us?