The view from Billinudgel

Manus Island tourism
Is the former detention centre site a tropical paradise or hell on earth?

My first reaction to the report that the Australian government was planning to boost tourism on Manus Island was one of disbelief and revulsion. This was the place – well, one of the places – that successive Coalition ministers gloated was hell on earth.

The cynical myth of the so-called Pacific Solution as a tropical paradise of palm trees and beaches had been well and truly dispelled: Manus was a gulag, a prison camp where asylum seekers, whether genuine refugees or not, could be left to suffer and if necessary die in the national interest.

It was and is a monument to political brutality, opportunism and a jingoism that frequently crosses the border into racism. To turn it into some kind of pleasure resort would be an obscenity.

And yet perhaps there is a kind of sense to the idea. Perhaps the tourists would not come for the surfing and scuba diving, but for those all-too-recent memories. Perhaps they would finally able to see for themselves the horrors that have been implemented in Australia’s name and understand the viciousness of the regime – or regimes – that decreed them.

After all, many of the more terrible sites of history are kept as monuments. Without making any direct comparisons, Auschwitz-Birkenau attracts hordes of visitors every year, not in order to wallow in some kind of morbid curiosity, but to bear witness to the Holocaust and determine never to repeat it.

Manus, of course, is not on that scale, but the motivation is uncomfortably similar: the obsession with national borders and security, and the belief that those who do not meet the demands of the state can be considered disposable.

As far as we know, only six Manus inmates have died, two of them while being treated in Australian facilities. But the attitude of Peter Dutton and his departmental goons makes it clear that this hardly matters, just as the hand-wringing about deaths at sea is almost invariably hypocritical; the problem is not deaths at sea, but lives in Australia.

The hard fact is that Manus has been an affront to human decency, if not a crime against humanity. The proposition that the only way to keep the nation safe is to lock up innocent victims behind razor wire until they go mad or die should be untenable, but since it has not been, let’s be open about it. This has been a shameful, even unforgivable, episode in our history and Manus – and of course Nauru – will be notorious for a long time.

Neither Papua New Guinea nor Australia will be able to rehabilitate the centre and perhaps should not try. Instead we should open it to the world as a grim and salutary warning. And we might emulate Auschwitz with a sign over the original buildings; not “Arbeit macht frei”, that ancient discredited lie, but something more modern: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Not quite as snappy as the German, but just about as threatening.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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