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Neo-Colonialism in the Torres Strait

Categories: Neo-Colonialism, PNG, Torres Strait

by: Bakchos
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An interesting advertorial appeared in last Friday’s The National in Papua New Guinea. This advertorial appears to be a copy of a letter written by Mr Niwia Sawabarri, Chairman of the Masaingle Association to Prime Minister Gillard.

The letter is a follow-up to submissions made by Mr Sawabarri to the Australian Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee on 18 June, 2010 which had been tasked with looking into matters relating to the Torres Strait region.

Terms of reference for the inquiry were:

To inquire into and report on:

The administration and management of matters relating to Australia’s northern air, sea and land approaches in the region of the Torres Strait, including:

(a) the provisions of the Torres Strait Treaty;

(b) the role of the Torres Strait Regional Authority in respect of treaty and border issues, including how the authority interacts with the governments and people of Papua New Guinea (PNG);

(c) the extent of cooperation with, and between, Australia’s northern neighbours, PNG and Indonesia, in relation to the health, welfare and security of the Torres Strait region and communities in and around this region; and

(d) the challenges facing this region in relation to:

(i) the management of fisheries,

(ii) the contribution of international trade and commerce to regional economic sustainability,

(iii) the maintenance of strong border security across the Torres Strait region, including but not limited to, issues related to Australia’s defence, bio-security, public health, immigration and customs,

(iv) cooperation between federal, state and local levels of government, and

(v) air, sea and land transport linkages.

Background to the Masaingle Association’s letter to Prime Minister Gillard

The Torres Strait Islands Region is a Local Government Area located in Far North Queensland, Australia, covering part of the Torres Strait Islands. It was created in March 2008 out of 15 autonomous Island Councils during a period of statewide local government reform. It is administered from, but has no control over, Thursday Island.

In 1984, the Community Services (Torres Strait) Act was enacted by the Queensland Government, allowing community councils to be created to own and administer former reserves or missions under a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT). Each was responsible for local basic utilities and services such as electricity, housing and management of local CDEP programs. They also worked with the Queensland Police to provide for community police officers, hence extending well beyond the normal functions of local government. The Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act 2004 extended to community councils many of the provisions and benefits of the Local Government Act 1993 normally enjoyed by shire councils.

In 2006, the councils were involved in a consultation process which resulted in a Green Paper being produced. The State Government subsequently took over the process, and in April 2007, a White Paper entitled “Community Government in the Torres Strait: the way forward” was released, recommending both governance and structural changes to ensure the sustainability of governance in the region. The White Paper expressed concerns about workload and capacity to meet community needs, deficiencies in corporate governance and accountability and other challenges and issues. The Local Government Reform report in July 2007 recommended the creation of the Torres Strait Islands council as well as the Northern Peninsula Area council to attempt to address these issues. The Queensland Government responded by proposing the Local Government and Other Legislation (Indigenous Regional Councils) Amendment Bill 2007 to bring the two new councils into line with the recommendations of both reports.

The Torres Strait

Torres Strait is an island-studded sea passage between Cape York and Papua New Guinea, with the Arafura Sea on its west and the Coral Sea on its east. It was named by Alexander Dalrymple, British hydropher, after Luis Vaez de Torres, Spanish navigator. De Torres encountered the strait in 1606 when he parted from an expedition from Peru in search of Terra Australis Incognito. He finally journeyed to the Philippines via the Moluccas. The strait is about 160 km wide between Cape York and Papua New Guinea, with Saibai Island only 4 km from the Papua New Guinea mainland forming Queensland’s northern most boarders. The population is 70% indigenous Torres Strait Islander people, with 25% Papuan and 5% White Australian. The Masaingle Association represent a group of villagers of the Papuan coast with cultural trading and legal ties to the Torres Strait, which predate by tens of thousands of years any European knowledge to this part of the world.

The Masaingle Association’s argument

The submission the Masaingle Association put before the Senate Committee was essentially that before Europeans penetrated the Torres Strait region in the 15th Century, the area had already been inhabited by other peoples for tens of thousands of years. These people had developed over that time their own culture, with its associated political and trading networks, cultural boarders and ways of dealing with inter and intra community disputes.

European penetration of the region was eventually followed by European colonization. As with Africa, the Europeans divided the region with an eye to self-interest and profit, paying scant if any regard to the cultural needs and legal rights of the indigenous peoples of the region.

The Masaingle Association’s submission to the Australian Senate Committee reads in part:

Your history reveals that the unlawful annexation and taking of the Torres Strait islands by the colony of Queensland on behalf of the British monarchy was an afterthought to the taking of the Aboriginal mainland. The Melanesian islands of the Torres Strait were never a part of the original colonisation of Australia. When the Melanesian islands of the Torres Strait were eventually annexed and declared crown land of the British monarchy, you took something that was sacred from us. When you took our lands and our seas, you took our birthright, you took our life, you took our past and our heritage and you denied us a future. You never asked us what we thought or explained the meaning of your actions. This became your first act of dispossession.

Your second act of dispossession took place immediately after the High Court decision in 1993 on the Mabo case, recognising and restoring my people’s traditional and continuous ownership of our islands and restoring it to us. You passed native title legislation at both federal and state levels to deny us our birthright once more. My uncle Eddie Mabo may come from the island of Mer, but his roots are deeply set on the banks of the Binaturi River. The legal myth of dispossession called “terra nullius”  has been discredited and debunked. He is dead, but his sons are very much alive on both sides of your artificial line.

In the period between 1973 and 1974, the Australian government drew up territorial boundaries for what was to become the independent state of Papua New Guinea. As the colonial master, Australia was literally instrumental in the process of separating our people on the mainland from those on the islands, depriving us of our land and sea tenure in the Torres Strait. It destroyed our society and way of life as one people and one society. You cannot begin to imagine how much we have suffered all these years from your enforced act of separation. You have suffocated us as seafaring people.

Today your newspapers and television media and your government publications brand us illegal border crossers, overstayers, disease bearers and unnecessary dependants coming to rob your welfare system. You have used welfare colonialism to call up the island leaders to create fear and suspicion among our people. You paint a picture of the evil hordes of Genghis Khan of the north invading the islands of the Torres Strait to steal, rape, pillage and destroy. You treat me as a stranger and lawbreaker on my own seas and my own lands.

What we have here is yet another clear example of Australia placing its neo-Colonial interests over those of the original and rightful owners of a territory that white man took forcibly and maintains through foreign laws that have no resonance with or connection to the people to whom they are being applied; the Australian Government is a foreigner attempting to justify through words on paper what is otherwise indefensible, namely the theft and occupation of someone else’s land to the total exclusion of its rightful owners.

The Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) position

The TSIRC response to the Masaingle Association’s submission is that citizens of PNG’s Western Province are placing a burden on the resources of TSIRC and Queensland Health by coming down to Saibai for medical treatment, particularly at the Saibai Island Tuberculosis Clinic (soon to be closed). TSIRC also argues that PNG citizens overstay and create law and order problems.

These arguments mirror those used by ‘white’ Australians when they argue for restrictive and discriminatory laws to deal with law and order problems in Aboriginal communities. Both issues have their genesis in the same event – the European colonisation of other peoples land and the injustices that have flowed and continue to flow from that process.

While Europe’s ego-centric and materialistic culture and the laws developed to support that culture may work for Europeans living in Europe that does not mean these laws are either needed or wanted by indigenous people living on their traditional land.

The imposition of restrictive, unjust and discriminatory European type laws on indigenous people aimed at supporting European greed and European middle-class welfare at the expense of everyone else on the planet can herald nothing but disaster for everyone in the longer term.

An interesting aside to the Torres Strait border issue is that Mr Julian Moti QC, in his capacity as Attorney General for the Solomon Islands, took a principled stand on this issue. In his capacity as Attorney-General Mr Moti had locus standi to cause anti-colonial havoc in the International Court of Justice for Australia’s neo-colonial ambitions in the pacific; another reason that Australia, with its selfish vested interests in the Pacific, had in wanting Mr Moti taken out of the picture.

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