Brace yourself for a season of unscrupulous politicians, villains hiding in plain sight, and stories of exploitation so sensational you’ll struggle to believe them – Power Corrupts is back for a third series. After episodes on election rigging, bio-weapons and the inner workings of the international arms trade, author and political scientist Brian Klaas has more to say about “the hidden and often nefarious forces that shape our world”. And episode one is all about a tiny island in the middle of nowhere that became the illicit finance capital of the world.
In “The Billion Dollar Shack”, Klaas and his guests chart the tragic history of Nauru in the Pacific. You might think you’ve heard this story before: an island paradise that made squirrelling away criminal cash on behalf of oligarchs and fraudsters its primary industry. But like everything covered on Power Corrupts, the reality is much more bizarre. The episode is a rags-to-riches tale that begins with the unexpected value of bird droppings and only gets weirder, as Nauru seeks alternative ways to make money: by investing in a failing Australian football club, putting its UN vote up for sale, even bankrolling an ill-fated West End musical about Leonardo da Vinci. It tells of how the country became a haven for criminals to hide their wealth and a vendor of second passports, no questions asked.
What is really remarkable is how neatly all this slots into a much bigger geopolitical picture. One moment, we hear how the island became a pawn in China’s battle for dominance and was used when Australia outsourced the policing of its borders against illegal migrants; the next, we are forced to ponder the global implications of a country hawking its banking system to the highest bidder, or plundering its natural resources so thoroughly it ends up destroying itself. Could Nauru be the first country to, as one guest puts it, “turn off the lights and push in its UN chair and decommission its flag”? It’s a disconcerting question. And I don’t predict that the third season of this podcast will get any more comfortable from here.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire