David Crowe & Rowan Callick, in The Australian, 25 July 2013, where the title reads “Kevin Rudd’s PNG splurge to match the rush of boats”
LABOR has vowed to build an “extraordinary capacity” to deal with the latest wave of asylum-seekers as it tries to stare down people-smugglers by ensuring it has room for thousands of new arrivals, despite the mounting cost to the budget. Defence staff and civil contractors were clearing part of Manus Island yesterday to take the influx as another four boats were intercepted, breaching the official capacity of the island’s detention centre. A giant Antonov cargo aircraft will this weekend head to Papua New Guinea to supply the “rapid expansion” of tents and marquees around the existing centre as the government inspects sites on other parts of the island to set up more camps.
The plan puts the government on track to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new facilities if boats continue to arrive at current rates and it finds itself forced to house up to 3000 asylum-seekers. The government has refused to disclose how much it will spend expanding the facilities on Manus Island, or detail the changes to the $500 million-a-year PNG aid budget that have helped secure Port Moresby’s co-operation. Business sources in PNG with experience of remote construction warn that a township for about 3000 residents could cost up to $700m.
Tony Abbott intensified his attacks on Labor’s solution by promising to put a three-star general in charge of a taskforce to turn boats around, sparking criticism that he was interfering in the military chain of command.
Kevin Rudd conceded there were “bumps in the road” in his pledge to deter asylum-seekers as he privately stepped up plans for a regional summit on the issue on August 20 by speaking to his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
With 816 asylum-seekers on Christmas Island now subject to the new regime and due to be sent to Manus Island, the government is ramping up spending on border protection just as it comes under pressure to keep to its promise to balance the budget. The opposition yesterday accused Labor of a $10 billion blowout in the immigration budget since coming into office.
The number of asylum-seekers who have arrived since last Friday, when the Prime Minister announced his “no Australian settlement” policy, now surpasses the average arrivals each week this year. Experts said yesterday it was too early to decide whether the policy was working. “You would probably want to give the plan about a month because you might have some people who have already paid up-front to get out of Indonesia,” said William Maley, the director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke ended a visit to Manus Island yesterday by telling The Australian there was no shortage of capacity to take more asylum-seekers if people-smugglers continued to test the policy. The island’s detention centre has been mostly cleared and now has fewer than 30 detainees, allowing it to house several hundred of the asylum-seekers now being processed on Christmas Island.
“The only delay on people coming from Christmas Island is the health checks. I have no doubt the facilities on Manus Island are ready to go and ready for people who’ve arrived so far to be sent across,” Mr Burke said. Earlier, he said the number of arrivals would “completely define” the scale of the accommodation “and it completely defines the cost associated with it. Defence personnel and local contractors were preparing parts of the island yesterday for the “rapid expansion” of tents and marquees.
“I’ve looked at a large number of sites today and I’ve had conversations about further sites on Manus Island, which I haven’t visited,” Mr Burke said. “Be in no doubt there is an extraordinary capacity for expansion here if people keep testing our resolve.”
Toll Remote Logistics, a division of the Australian-based Toll Group, is using giant Antanov freight planes to fly three loads of materials destined for the Manus Island expansion to Port Moresby this weekend. Decmil, the Australian construction group that last month won a $137m contract to build a facility on Manus Island to take 600 asylum-seekers, up from the current 300, will deliver its project by January 31. Water and sewerage treatment plants for Manus are already under construction within PNG.
A troop ship likely to be amphibious landing ship HMAS Choules will be dragged off operational duty to become a floating hotel to house staff rebuilding the Manus Island detention centre.
David Conn, executive director of the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce, said: “Australia will do itself a favour if it angles a bit of business into the PNG economy.” When Mr Conn sent a message to the 1100 chamber members, informing them that Toll was seeking to source goods and services from within PNG, 164 responded to the company.
Phil Franklin, the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses had been approached to quote for road transport, shipping and bussing, and Manus people would be able to provide fruit and vegetables for the centre, as they did under John Howard’s Pacific Solution, which also used Manus Island.
Mr Abbott countered Labor’s policy by declaring that a Coalition government would establish “Operation Sovereign Borders” under a three-star general reporting to the immigration minister. The program would also reinstate the Howard government policy of towing boats back to international waters, increasing capacity at offshore processing centres and leasing vessels to relieve naval vessels of passenger transfers.
Professor Maley said that interfered with the chain of command. “Where does the defence minister sit in this, where does the chief of the defence force sit in this? I think it would probably be unworkable as a matter of practice.” Defence Minister Stephen Smith yesterday began two days of talks with his Indonesian counterpart, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, in Perth.
Professor Maley noted that Mr Rudd had promised “safety and security” for asylum-seekers in PNG and this alone would still work as an incentive for those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Others warned the policy would erode social conditions in PNG if it did not curtail boat arrivals. “After a month we should have a fair idea of whether people are still willing to take the risk or not,” said Andrew Carr, ANU associate lecturer in strategic and defence studies, Andrew Carr.