Shut the gate? No, shrink the border

It was always on the cards. Yet even for close watchers of recent Machiavellian antics on Capital Hill, yesterday’s unauthorised release of a classified document on the Suspected Illegal/Irregular Entry Vehicle (SIEV) crisis – The Indian Ocean Solution – came as a shock. Is it just another bump in the policy road? Or does it raise more uncomfortable questions about the government’s border protection “business model”? In a Quadrant Online exclusive, the back-story to this affair is revealed here for the first time.

There has been no official comment yet. The Prime Minister clearly is preoccupied with more pressing matters: the Manus “Devil’s Island” Solution, the Nauru “Paradise Lost” Solution, and his presidential – Easy choice, folks: My Sunshine or His Sewer — re-election campaign. Expect Tasmanian “Hell’s Gates” and Macquarie Island “Cold Comfort” Solutions to be announced soon, together with this coup d’éclat — a historic deal with New Caledonia, based on his PNG model.

Who leaked the controversial report? Was it a Mr Richard Sympson, the alleged author? All we know at this stage is his AWOL-status is causing apoplexy in at least one government agency. This morning’s MSM suggests Sympson could be a disgruntled ex-DFAT career diplomat, who apparently turned whistle-blower activist because of departmental mayhem and recent foreign-aid budget reductions.

Others speculate he is using a bogus identity and operating on behalf of another person or persons unknown. A former colleague, who wishes to remain anonymous, apparently said to a person familiar with the matter that Sympson has an “odd accent, a haughty manner and a huqqa.” If so, he is clearly not one of us. Did he enter the country illegally or on a 457 visa?

One rumour circulating in Canberra is that he is an attention-seeking descendant of an English priest – with the same name – who was martyred (hanged, drawn and quartered) by order of Elizabeth I on July, 24, 1588, or a cousin of the publisher of Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

There are other questions too. While the leak’s timing seems designed to damage the government, could it back-fire on the perpetrator? Was he inspired by the celebrity status of Julian Assange and the 30-year old US citizen, Edward Joseph Snowden, to make mischief?

Whatever the case, and whoever he is, those who have wrestled with SIEV arrivals for years grudgingly admit the Sympson Solution has such an elegant simplicity it could attract broad public support. And as any diplomat, president or prime minister will tell you, simplicity is critical to resolving complex cross-border challenges, especially in the mind-numbing asylum space four weeks from an election.

The only surprise – for everyone except a few lateral thinkers – is that it has not been aired publicly before, especially by one of the parties now locked in a vicious “race to the bottom” of the asylum seeker-economic migrant-illegal immigrant-etc barrel. Or perhaps it is already on a to-do list somewhere?

Intriguing new information came to light several days ago, when an astute amateur historian on a Sunday stroll through the St Mary’s Bridge churchyard, Derbyshire, joined the dots. It is now beyond reasonable doubt that Sympson actually is a distant relative of William Mynors. Was he driven by some obscure family vendetta against authority to leak the document?

For it was Mynors, as captain of an East India Company vessel, the Royal Mary, who sighted and named Christmas Island on Christmas Day, December 25, 1643. Whether because of bad weather, the island’s limestone cliffs, or the drunken EIC maritime health and safety officials on board, he was unable to make a landing.

The first recorded European visit to the island – what Australia for everyone describes as “Australian soil” – did not occur until 1688, when explorer, buccaneer and London exhibitor of tattooed Prince Jeoly and his mother, William Dampier, arrived in his ship, Cygnet. Two crewmen went ashore for water, timber and whatever else they could lay their desperate hands on.

From Sympson’s report:

“Geologist Sir John Murray carried out extensive surveys during the 1872–76 Challenger expedition to Indonesia. In 1888, Pelham Aldrich, on board HMS Egeria, visited for ten days. Among rocks submitted to Murray for examination were many of nearly pure phosphate of lime.

Not tempted to look a gift horse in the mouth, the British Crown subsequently ‘annexed’ the island on June 6, 1888. After World War II, it came under jurisdiction of its new Colony of Singapore.

From 1 January 1958 to 1 October 1958, the island was a separate Crown colony. It was transferred to Australia – on its request -after payment of £2.9 million compensation to the Singapore government. The acquisition apparently is still celebrated (somewhere) annually as Territory Day on the first Monday in October.

Since 1995, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands together have been called the Australian Indian Ocean Territories. They share a single administrator resident on Christmas Island.

As for the history of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands – two flat, low-lying coral atolls with an area of 14.2 square kilometres and highest elevation of five metres, it is a hareem and Hare-raising story about which the less said the better.

The islands were “annexed” by the British Empire in 1857 and, curiously, granted in perpetuity by Queen Victoria to the Clunies-Ross family in 1886.”

Sympson presents a persuasive case to justify his controversial recommendation:

“It is way past time for Australia to divest its Indian Ocean Territories. They are not only problematic relicts of the nation’s colonial past, but already loom as big problems for its future.

The days of finders-keepers are long gone. One can no longer merely sail by a remote island, name it, annex it and then attempt to legitimise possession by using dubious legal or historical precedents, while ignoring the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) in the room – geography.

No amount of diplomatic obfuscation can alter this fact: Christmas Island is 2,600 km (1,600 mi) northwest of Perth, 2,748 km (1,708 mi) west of Darwin, with its closest point to the Australian mainland being 1,560 km from Exmouth. Yet – as an armada of people smugglers and their passengers are well aware – this so-called Australian Territory is located only 344 km (186 nautical mi) south of Java.

Furthermore, note the ethnic composition of the island’s 3,000 residents is 60 per cent Chinese, 25 per cent Malay and 15 per cent European.”

Then there is the border issue. The Australia-Indonesia border was established by three separate treaties, but the third – between Christmas Island and Java – has yet to be ratified and is not in force.

According to Sympson:

“The Treaty between the Government of Australia and the Government of the Republic of Indonesia establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone Boundary and Certain Seabed Boundaries (informally known as the Australia–Indonesia Maritime Delimitation Treaty) was signed in Perth on 14 March 1997.

It is a modified median line which lies closer to the island by virtue of it being an isolated island lying next to the coastline of a larger country. Unlike the boundary in the Arafura and Timor seas, there are no separate boundaries for the seabed (essentially the continental shelf) and water column (exclusive economic zone).”

Sympson also considered regional demographic pressures: “Indonesia’s 1950 population – only 80 million people – has increased two-fold 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 size in about four decades.”

For Sympson:

"Given such compelling facts, it would be an exceedingly timely and symbolic gesture – and people-smuggler deterrent – to mark the 370th anniversary of Christmas Island’s discovery by returning all 135 sqkm of it – and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands – to the country that is surely their rightful owner, the Republic of Indonesia, on Christmas Day this year.

Otherwise, their retention as a bureaucratic quasi-penal entrepôt will signal to the world that Australia, now a G-20 country, has decided to re-enact a dark chapter from its brutal colonial past.

There is much more at stake here than merely increasing philatelic sales for Australia Post; namely the nation’s stature on the international stage.”

"Have you been to a lunatic asylum lately?" 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 – written in the Melbourne Public Library – to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in his For the Term of His Natural Life, (1874), 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.”

If “the blunders” that produced the convict system of justice were repeated, “tragic and terrible” events “must infallibly occur again.”

Would Clarke not conclude – if he returned over a century later – that, while there was no more deportation of “criminals of England”, “the method of punishment, of which that deportation was a part, is still in existence”?

Michael Kile,  August 2013

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