Christmas Island is Australian territory, but there is no good reason why it should be. A relic of Britain’s retreat from empire, geography and logic say it should be Indonesia territory, so why don’t we hand over and eliminate its appeal as a destination to the next wave of illegal aliens, which will surely come
J0urnalist Paul Toohey’s recent essay on the Labor government’s quest for an asylum-seeker deal with Indonesia is a splendid piece of writing and reporting, but it omits the most obvious solution to a problem that, while now dormant thanks to Operation Sovereign Borders, is certain to rear its head once again in the years to come. Quadrant contributor Michael Kile offers a solution as simple as it is bold.
Dear Mr Toohey,
Your fine Quarterly Essay (number 53), “That Sinking Feeling – Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution”, reinforces the view that successive governments on both sides of the Sunda Arc have been unable to craft a humane and “durable” solution to the asylum seeker problem. Yet the history and geography of Australia’s two Indian Ocean Territories suggests there is one.
The destination of most Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicles (SIEVs) was named Christmas Island on December 25, 1643, by William Mynors, captain of the Royal Mary, an East India Company vessel. Bad weather and the island’s limestone cliffs prevented his ship from landing. It was two crewmen from William Dampier’s Cygnet who made the first recorded visit by Europeans, in 1688. They went ashore for water, timber and whatever else they could lay their desperate hands on.
Two centuries later, the discovery of phosphate prompted the British to annex the 135sq km island on 6th June, 1888. It became “Australian soil” only 56 years ago, on October 1, 1958, after payment of 2.9 million pounds sterling to the Singapore government for the remaining phosphate reserves. (The acquisition is celebrated annually as Territory Day on the first Monday in October.)
Geographically, Christmas Island is 2,623 km northwest of Perth, 2,748 km west of Darwin, and 1, 560 km from Exmouth, its closest point to us. Yet – as people-smugglers, SIEV owners and their passengers are well aware – this remote piece of Australia is just 344 km (186 nautical mi) south of Java.
As for the other less popular SIEV destination, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are even more distant – 2,768 km northwest of Perth, 3,700 km west of Darwin and 1,300 km southwest of Jakarta. Comprising two coral atolls with an area of 14 sq km, the less said about their Hare-raising history the better. In 1857 they too were annexed by the British. Queen Victoria granted the islands to the Clunies-Ross family in perpetuity in 1886. Australia compulsorily acquired them for $4.75m in 1978, ending the reign of the kings of Cocos.
Much has been said about island “sovereignty” since the Hawke Cabinet’s January 1984 review of Indian Ocean policy endorsed Australia’s “enduring interest in protecting….the Cocos and Christmas Islands.”
Singapore and Indonesia apparently showed “some interest” in acquiring Christmas Island at the time. Territories Minister Tom Uren, however, argued successfully for more integration – “to demonstrate to our neighbours that the Island is regarded as an integral part of Australia, not simply as a phosphate source”.
Cabinet agreed on a staged package two months later – which included establishing local government, wages, welfare and voting rights similar to Australia, with income and company taxes. The rest is history.
The first group of asylum-seekers seeking refugee status arrived less than a decade later in 1992, just as the island came under WA legislation.
Then came the Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) Act 2001 – An Act to excise certain Australian territory from the migration zone under the Migration Act 1958 for purposes related to unauthorised arrivals, and for related purposes, and subsequent amendments.
Under this Amendment what matters is not where an asylum seeker enters Australian territory, but how they do it. It was designed especially for Christmas Island, as it attracts the most SIEVs due to proximity to Indonesia.
Increasing arrivals forced construction of an Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in 2005. The Howard government spent more than $400 million on it and related infrastructure. Capacity was increased to 2,300 in 2010. Over 3,200 were in detention in July, 2013, and 1,632 on March 21 this year.
“Australian diplomats had never packaged up a comprehensive plan for an Indonesian Solution; or if such a plan was ever devised and presented to Jakarta, the detail of it never reached the ears of the most informed Australian academics or journalists. Nor did it serve the interests of Australian politicians to run through the exhaustive list of why Australia did not pursue, at high diplomatic level, such a scheme, because the answers were too raw to be ventilated.” (page 71).
Yet, ironically, the DFAT desk officer involved in Australia’s 1958 acquisition of Christmas Island raised the taboo issue of ownership on February 19 last year in another forum.
Richard Woolcott, AC, distinguished diplomat and DFAT Secretary (1988-92), put it this way during an Expert Panel Discussion on the Casey Era (1951-60) arranged by the Australian Institute of International Affairs:
Woolcott: “The transfer was part of the British mindset. Singapore was going to become fully independent, so it was necessary to keep Christmas Island in good safe British hands by transferring it to Australia.”
Moderator: “So you were involved in buying that island?”
Woolcott: “Well, I suppose we bought it. We’re paying the consequences right now in terms of refugee problems. But there was really no reason why it should have been transferred to Australia.
However, the transfer was done and I think Casey was very keen on keeping it in safe hands. Logically, of course, Christmas Island was part of the colony of Singapore and more logically could have been transferred to Indonesia, to which it was much closer. But I just mention that in passing.”
Nationalistic notions of sovereignty must be weighed against the fact that these territories are not only what Richard Woolcott described as “crumbs from the British Empire’s table fed to us when the age of colonialism was drawing to a close,” but also that they will continue to be SIEV magnets as long as they are legally part of Australia.
Despite the decline of arrivals in recent months, regional demographic pressures could produce new SIEV surges in the years ahead. Indonesia’s 1950 population – only 80 million people – has increased to 245 million today. By 2050, it is likely to be the world’s fifth-largest country, with 309 million inhabitants, at least seven times Australia’s projected population at that time.
Then there is the border issue. The Australia-Indonesia border was established by three separate treaties. However, the third – between Christmas Island and Java – has yet to be ratified and is not in force, presumably because of concern about its proximity to Indonesia.
As for the phosphate mining, it remains the Island’s most profitable business – after asylum seeker processing. But it is now controlled by Singapore and Malaysia-registered entities – not residents. (They were granted a new Commonwealth mining lease extension until 2034, according to a media release on June 26 last year, coincidentally just a few hours after ex-Prime Minister Rudd’s return.)
Given the Abbott government is committed to “taking the sugar off the table”, ending people-smuggling and enhancing Indonesian relations, it could achieve all three objectives by gifting these island outposts to our nearest neighbour on Christmas Day, 2015.
What better way to mark the 372th anniversary of Christmas Island’s discovery than by resolving “Indonesia’s sorest point”” — an unratified sea-border issue — and demolishing the smuggler business-model with the stroke of a pen?
There is more at stake today than philatelic sales for Australia Post; our reputation on the international stage. For its retention as a bureaucratic quasi-penal entrepôt suggests to the world that we are a regressive nation, acting out a dark and brutal chapter from our colonial past.
Yet as you lament, this shared problem could have been – and still can be – the basis for strong regional cooperation, surely preferable to the current Manus “Devil’s Island” and Nauru “Paradise Lost” Solutions. Will there be Tasmanian “Hell’s Gates” and Macquarie Island “Cold Comfort” Solutions some day to complete the grim triangle of incarceration, or perhaps a historic deal with New Caledonia based on the PNG model?
Those who know their colonial history will recall that when Port Arthur closed in 1877 there were more inmates in the asylum than in the prison.
In Marcus Clarke’s dedication to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in his 1874 novel, For the Term of His Natural Life – written in the Melbourne Public Library – he warned against
“the inexpediency of again allowing offenders against the law to be herded together in places remote from the wholesome influence of public opinion, and to be submitted to a discipline which must necessarily depend for its just administration upon the personal character and temper of their gaolers.”
He predicted that if “the blunders” that produced the convict system of justice were repeated, “tragic and terrible” events “must infallibly occur again.”
If Clarke returned to pass judgment today, he would be surprised that, while there was no more deportation of the “criminals of England”, the “method of punishment, of which that deportation was a part, is still in existence”.
Richard Woolcott said he still felt a “sense of guilt by association” whenever the islands were misused, and so ought Australia. It is time to divest these crumbs of empire.
Michael Kile, May 2014