'Gagging visas' are an attack on democracy

The skyrocketing price of a journalist visa for Nauru will limit coverage of Australian prisoners on a vassal state. It is an insult to the democratic principles this country stands for.

It cannot go unremarked that Australia's harsh treatment of unauthorised boat arrivals is descending into an appalling state of secrecy – the latest absurdity being the Nauru government's decision to hike visa fees for visiting journalists from $200 to $8000.

The 'gagging visa' was first uncovered by Global Mail photographer Mike Bowers, whose publication quotes Nauru’s Government Information Office Director, Joanna Olsson, as saying the move was “for revenue purposes. What else would it be for?”

Well, for increasing the deterrents to the Australian media documenting a shameful period of our history, perhaps?

Whatever one thinks of the split between 'legitimate refugees' and 'economic migrants' in the boats that continue to make it to Australian territory, there is no peace-time precedent for an Australian government farming out this kind of decision-making to an island 'nation' of just over 9000 people and, when questioned about policy, replying: "This is a matter for the Government of Nauru."

The inmates on Nauru are Australia's prisoners. The Nauru government is massively propped by up by Australian dollars. These matters should be freely covered by Australian journalists.

In the interests of context, readers may like to look for themselves at the island of Nauru through the satellite imagery available through Google Maps.

A few seconds are enough to remember that the sovereign nation is in fact a tiny, convenient vassal state that has been central to a cynical manipulation of Australian voters by at least five governments, both Coalition and Labor. 

One might as well send detainees to a camp outside Broken Hill in western New South Wales – which, incidentally has twice the population of Nauru – and then blame any problems on the local City Council.

Or better still, move them to the sovereign principality of Hutt River and blame everything on the ruling monarch, Prince Leonard.

No. Our prisoners are our affair. It is bad enough the 'boats' debate has been so blown out of proportion in Australia by both the Coalition and Labor in their 'race to the bottom' on this issue. Allowing an erosion of democracy by putting roadblocks in front of the fourth-estate that exists to preserve that very democracy, compounds the error.

While there is no evidence that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was complicit in Nauru's decision, it is certain that his department, through its funding arrangements for Nauru's detention 'industry' could exert enough pressure to overturn the gagging visas. If their creation truly was for 'revenue' reasons, that extra revenue could easily be found.

But what will he do? Likely, nothing.

The political potency of refugee issues is wildly out of proportion to the impact boat arrivals have on the community. Put another way, boat arrivals in no way threaten the welfare of Australians – they just offer an easy, if unfounded, way of whipping up fear in the community. And politicians on both sides thrive on fear.

In the UK, where the UK Independence Party has tapped xenophobic fears even more successfully than One Nation did in Australia in the late 1990s, the refugee debate has taken some confusing turns recently.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has in the past week voiced support for the resettlement of Syrians fleeing that nation's humanitarian crisis, but fanned the flames of intolerance by calling for a five year moratorium on migration to Britain.

He's also said he'd rather see Britain poorer, with fewer migrants – acknowledging that migration has continued to benefit his country's economic growth. Britain's Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that with current migrant intakes, it would see GDP grow 2.7 per cent per year over the next 50 years, but 1.9 per cent a year if migration was halted.

Back home, NSW Senator and ALP right-faction broker Sam Dastyari has been grappling with the same issue, but taking the opposite line. In The Australian last week, he wrote: "A conversation about a bigger Australia should begin by admitting to, and addressing, the prejudices that run deep in our history and our communities."

Separately, he told the paper: "I believe in a big Australia. We need to encourage the best and brightest to come to Australia. Every Frank Lowy or Harry Triguboff we bring to Australia is as good as a company like Holden or Ford."

And locked up in Nauru there may well be another Lowy or Triguboff. Though how would we know? We have apparently decided to put the democratic, free Australia in which those two men flourished on hold while we solve the boats issue.

That cannot be allowed to go unremarked. That cannot be allowed to continue.

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