Everyone was weary of politics here in Sydney’s west by the end of the Prime Minister’s visit earlier this month.
Even the evening routine — dumping the junk mail on the kitchen table after a long, grumpy commute — couldn't escape it. “Labor’s illegal boat arrivals,” thundered one leaflet. “The cost”, and then the clincher: “546 Illegal Boats = $6.6 Billion”, in large, black, emphatic print. “Your taxes wasted on illegal boat arrival cost-blow-outs.”
On the flipside was a graph of figures said to be from the “Minister for Home Affairs and Border Protection Service, 2013”, listing boat arrivals from 2008 to 2012. Julia Gillard’s face, caught during an unflattering photo moment, seemed to be looking across at the ever-rising statistics. Mark Neeham, the state director of the NSW Liberal Party was listed in small type — and without a Liberal party logo — as having authorised the pamphlet. It’s safe to assume that few readers in the federal marginal western suburb seat of Greenway (held by Labor on a margin of 0.9 per cent) would have bothered to find out where the material came from.
Most would have either taken the material at face value: ie: “We’re overrun by ‘Illegals’”, or routinely chucked it out with the rest of the junk mail pile.
But why bury the Liberal logo? Tony Abbott is usually quite happy to repeat his mantra of how the Coalition will “stop the boats”. Perhaps it was because of another bald claim on the flyer: “Every illegal boat is costing you $12.8 million.” This is disingenuous. No two boats are the same and can’t realistically be averaged out. The wildly different costs depend on refugee numbers, where a boat is picked up and where its human cargo is sent, whether a detainee ends up for two months in a mainland facility or two years on Manus Island. The logistics can be enormous.
On one level they're spot on — mandatory detention is a disproportionate waste of resources.
I attempted some money-trail research into the detention system in 2005, when the Howard government suffered its own cost blowouts. Then, close to $1 billion was spent to upgrade computer systems alone, and building Baxter — now in mothballs — cost more than $830 million. Who knows— the $6.6 billion trumpeted in the leaflet now could even be too modest. The flyer was also used a few weeks ago to target Lisa Chesters, an ALP candidate for the Victorian seat of Bendigo, who has indicated she would cross the floor on the issue.
Damien Mantach, the Liberal Party's Victorian director refused to comment on the issue, as did Chesters' opponent, Greg Bickley. Liberal Senator Michael Ronaldson dealt with media inquiries on the flyer as a “local issue”.
Ronaldson told the ABC's PM program: “The brochure states the facts. Nearly 32,000 boats and nearly $7000 million cost blow-out, and I know that Greg Bickley, the Liberal Party candidate who’s been door-knocking on a regular basis, is constantly getting feedback from people that they are sick and tired of this money being redirected away from local schools and roads.”
Apart from the Bendigo and Greenway leaflets, another surfaced last week around the Granville area, also in western Sydney. They were all printed by the junk mail giant, Salmat.
I rang Salmat’s Sydney head office to ask where the leaflets were going. After four days of silence, and running it past lawyers, a Salmat spokeswoman emailed: “Unfortunately, we will be unable to provide comment about this leaflet due to client confidentiality constraints.”
Political leaflets aside, the very act of privatising out the unpalatable task of incarceration, whether it’s for detention centres or prisons, attracts the same “commercial-in-confidence” exception – which is used to mask a myriad of sins.
I should disclose an interest here: I helped with research for a legal submission to the Palmer Inquiry into detention administration after the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases in 2005 and also wrote newspaper articles about the case. Cornelia is my sister. Like the majority of Australians, I knew very little detail before then about the mandatory detention system.
The lack of transparency in the border protection regime makes accountability across all its layers almost impenetrable. Without the use of Freedom of Information laws the public would likely have little information about the relationships between the big players: DIAC, the big contractors like Serco and G4S, their subcontractors, sometimes the corrections departments in the states, the Navy, the AFP and ASIO. Is there an official in an oversight role who could (and would be permitted to) account for the status of the various facilities in public — a motel here, an abandoned army site there — let alone what’s really going on offshore?
Another shield often used to prevent scrutiny is the noble-sounding one of “privacy”. Even those detainees who want to tell their stories or publicly reveal conditions in centres are told they’ll jeopardise their privacy (and risk their visa status).
The media are rarely let in, either for an unvarnished look at the centres, for unfettered interviews with detainees, or let alone to check the books. So that avenue for oversight is also curtailed. It’s thought politically worth it to spend, rather than think, to make a sad and complex problem go away. No-one kids themselves that boats will stop. Not unless international wars and carnage do.
In privatising immigration detention we’re following the often dubious example of the US and Britain, where big private contractors now form a corrections oligarchy, with a confusing history of co-ownerships and takeovers.
Some of these conglomerates have gained a toehold here. Think Wakenhut, the former Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), which used to run Woomera in the Howard era, Global Solutions Limited (GSL) which used to run Baxter, and now, our very own, adopted, Serco.
A final point that isn’t confusing, though: If Australia could find a bipartisan way to process asylum seekers onshore, and governments calmly and openly explained such a system to voters, the refugee “problem” wouldn’t go away, but it would cost only a fraction of what it does now.
New Matilda approached both the NSW Liberals’ office and Scott Morrison’s spokesman for comment but they did not reply by deadline.