Nauru: Australian colonial control never really ended

Today, Nauru is as a pliant micro-state ready to warehouse and imprison asylum seekers. Its willingness to do Australia’s bidding is the result of a history of colonial exploitation.

Nauru’s government has become increasingly erratic. In January, President Baron Waqa sacked its only magistrate and Supreme Court registrar Peter Law, an Australian, and forcibly deported him.

Law had issued an injunction against the deportation of an Australian businessman, and former spokesperson for the Nauruan government, Rod Henshaw.

Nauru’s Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames, also an Australian, issued an injunction against the deportation of Law. But the Waqa government ignored the injunction and stopped Eames himself from returning to Nauru by cancelling his visa. Then Nauru’s Solicitor-General Steven Bliim, another Australian, resigned in protest.

The trashing of Nauru’s judicial system didn’t bother the Abbott government one bit. The number of Australians filling key government posts is an indication of Nauru’s continuing neo-colonial status. Nauru’s Police Commissioner is seconded from the Australian Federal Police. The Australian High Court acts as the final court of appeal on Nauruan law.

Since the early 2000s, Australia has increasingly installed Australian personnel in key positions in the state bureaucracies of Pacific nations.

Nauru’s instability stems from its economic breakdown. In 2011-12, before the detention centres were reopened, almost 60 per cent of the government budget came from foreign aid, overwhelmingly from Australia. Nauru is in no position to refuse the Australian government and willingly accepts its role as a detention gulag.

Colonial exploitation

Nauru was once rich in valuable guano reserves (ancient deposits of bird droppings), used as fertiliser for Australian farms and agribusiness. Guano is treated with acid and turned into superphosphate.

In April 1886, British and German negotiators drew a straight line on a map to define the British and German “spheres of influence” over the western Pacific. Nauru was granted to Germany—without ever asking the Nauruans.

Nauru is fully 3000 kilometres north-east of Queensland, but nevertheless Australia had its own designs on the area. As Nancy Viviani, an historian of Nauru wrote, “Many Australian colonists on the eastern seaboard looked to New Guinea as their natural dependency, economically, politically and strategically, and regarded the Western Pacific as their natural sphere of influence.”

The south-western Pacific loomed large for the Australian economy during the early period of settlement. Tahitian pork cost a quarter of the price compared to pork from England. Trade in sandalwood took Australians to Fiji. Later it was cotton, gold and sugar. The New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and Solomons were raided for slave labour.

From 1888 to 1914, Nauru was a German protectorate. But Australian phosphate miners scoured the region.

In 1899, Bertie Ellis of the Pacific Islands Company found rich phosphate deposits on Nauru. In the first year of mining alone, 5000 kilograms were shipped to Australia.

Australia took control of Nauru in October 1914 during World War One. After the war, Federal Treasurer William A. Watt wrote that, “Its phosphate deposit marks it as of considerable value, not only as a purely commercial proposition but because the future productivity of our continent absolutely depends on such a fertiliser.” Viviani called Nauru, ‘The Prize of the Pacific.’

Until Nauruan independence in January 1968, Australia oversaw the strip-mining of over 80 per cent of Nauruan land, paying a relative pittance in royalties back to Nauruan landowners. In 1939, Nauruans were receiving just 9 per cent of the phosphate revenues. The phosphate was also sold far below world market prices.

Prior to independence the Australian authorities, having destroyed the island, were certain that Nauruans would “resettle” on another island or in Australia. But Nauruans did not want to resettle. They were determined to gain ownership of Nauru and its valuable phosphates. In 1967, the people of Nauru purchased the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners, and in June 1970 control passed to the locally owned Nauru Phosphate Corporation.

In 1993, Nauru and Australia reached an out-of-court settlement in the International Court of Justice for the environmental catastrophe created by mining.

While phosphate revenues were booming, Nauru could provide free water and electricity to its citizens. But by 1990s the phosphate and the money had run out. Today, Nauru’s unemployment rate is close to 90 per cent. The detention centres have been welcomed as one of the few sources of jobs. But corrupt politicians and the ruling families also squabble over the spoils that come with the millions that Australia is spending to turn Nauru into a penal colony.

By Tom Orsag


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