Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Nauru – 35 years of feeding frenzy


When does national “independence” mean the substitution of colonial overlordship with something just as malign, if not more so? When you’re Nauru, that’s when. Despite Helen Hughes’s attempt to argue that this little 35 year old now needs to finally stand on its own two (diabetic and possibly amputated) feet, and then everything can start to get better, this is a morass that the West beneficially owns 100% of, IMHO.

From the very beginning of the independence process, the pattern was set – Westerners (usually Australians, especially in the first three decades) would fuck something up, which would then require further Western experts to “fix” (i.e. fuck-up further, etc). While this pattern of a vortex of incompetence is hardly unique to Nauru, the scale of the individual career-building that has taken place on Nauru’s broken back would resembles a wall-map “family tree” of Italian governments, post World War II. Almost anyone who was anyone, pre-~1990 (which was when the real shonks started to move in, the old hands will tell you) has had their hands in the Nauru cookie jar.

It all started incompetently enough, to be sure. Unionist, and later Prime Minister Thatcher-in-sheep’s-clothing, Bob Hawke led a successful campaign to raise the wages of Nauru’s public servants. Which is just what any colony in the early stages of groping towards independence needs – a feeding trough for the upper echelons, dug deep. The price of Nauru phosphate then went up to a fair, global-par price (well, something had to start pouring in to the trough, given the increasing population of snouts). After independence in 1968 (an event about as meaningful as the baby boomer scribblings on Paris walls of that year), the trough was further topped up, this time by an inflow of Australian money, as compensation. But this inflow just seemed to widen and deepen the trough still further.

The total sum that these feeders earned, billed, and collected in a multitude of other, more dubious ways is mammoth. Yet I’m not a believer in doing “what if” accounting, Helen Hughes style, to come up with a staggering collective nest egg amount, all now frittered away. Money, when frittered away in large sums, will necessarily do so visibly – in excess, and so at least partially in the public eye. For Nauru, there was never any such party, let alone the party decade that would have been a decent, reasonable time period for a few thousand people to burn through a few billion dollars. The Nauru “party”, then, was an offshore, highly-dispersed and private archipelago of deals and careers. Like many an Australian redneck family’s treasured hoard of Aboriginal artefacts, the pilfering of Nauru was secret business, strictly confined to oral record only, and yet – oh – how the Nauru stories would pour forth, each one good-naturedly trumping the other, across so many dinner-party and business lunch tables.

The offshore history of the Nauru billions is thus unlikely to ever be properly known. Storing forever in shoe boxes – of the mind, career, and beach-house – beats frittering under the public spotlight, every time.

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