There was once a time when, if credible allegations were made to an Australian Labor minister of torture and abuse at a detention centre unfit to be a “dog kennel”, he would not have vowed to send thousands more potential victims to the very same situation before conducting a “proper investigation of the facts”.
But this weekend, as thousands of protesters called for a halt to the Rudd Government’s promise to send asylum seekers coming by boat to PNG, denying them any chance to settle in Australia, the Minister for Immigration Tony Burke did just that.
Over two days the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) paid private company Toll Logistics to fly four planeloads laden with 40 containers of tents to Port Moresby, capital of PNG. Smaller planes are now transferring the makings of a tent city to Manus Island. Burke promises that asylum seekers will be occupying the tents this week. The private company contracted to run the tent city, G4S, will then take over.
This piece focuses on the frightening allegations about Manus Island which are in danger of being obliterated by the media cycle and events, including the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s announcement today that he would outdo Burke by setting up a tent city for refugees on Nauru.
Burke wants to convince the public that thousands of asylum seekers, including children, can be housed on Manus Island. Currently Manus Island Detention Centre’s total capacity is 500 and it has never held more than 302. It relies on expensive desalinated water that often runs short as well as bottled water for drinking. A more permanent facility, which is yet to even begin construction, has a capacity of 600.
More than 1300 people have reached Christmas Island since Rudd announced the policy nine days ago.
Less than a week ago, viewers watched Burke agree that allegations put to him by SBS Dateline Reporter Mark Davis about conditions for those imprisoned on Manus Island up until now were “horrific” and should be “properly investigated”.
After the program, Burke spoke to whistleblower and ex-G4S manager Rod St George and continued to agree that allegations which include rape, weapon smuggling, many incidents of self-harm and assaults, complicity of management and a lack of competence in staff were "horrific".
Neverthelesss, Burke continued to confidently declare that there was no limit to the number of “tents and marquees” that could be erected on Manus to house recent arrivals, including children, although he moved children back to the mainland from Manus shortly after taking over his portfolio less than a month ago.
At the same time, he assured ABC radio on Wednesday that Australia needed to make sure asylum-seekers were treated with dignity and provided with “appropriate” services. “The allegations … fell appallingly short of that, and clearly there's a lot of direct allegations that need to be followed up," he said.
He gave no details of what form that “follow-up” might take apart from his own inspection. “I'll be in Manus in the next couple of days. I'll have a look for myself,” he said.
During his term, Burke’s predecessor Brendan O’Connor paid a flying visit to Manus. Detainees said they explained the horrific conditions including reports of severe distress and depression, shortage of water and overflowing toilets. They felt ignored. O’Connor found the conditions were “adequate”.
Like O’Connor, Burke declared after he inspected the island that conditions were “more than adequate”. Presumably his view was based on discussions with G4S and DIAC managers described by St George as “complicit”. Were they running the centre on the mainland, those same managers would likely be jailed, St George told Dateline.
It was unlikely that any detainee or employee would have made specific allegations to Burke about their jailers without independent advice or assurances. This became irrelevant because as Burke was talking, nearly all asylum seekers on Manus were being quickly transferred back to mainland detention centres. Burke did not see the centre during normal operations, let alone vastly expanded ones.
Although it is no excuse, it is likely that Burke did not know about the new policy when he told Davis that the allegations were “horrific”. Rudd had announced he was off to PNG on 11 July. Then the UNHRC issued a very negative report on Manus stating that the conditions were so severe that detainees sleeping four to six in overheated tents could suffer “psycho-social harm”. Both Rudd and Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles denied asylum seekers would be discussed during the visit.
In a “surprise last minute” decision, Rudd added Burke to his PNG travelling party. As he took off, Rudd was quoted as saying: "I have a very open mind to dealing with his set of challenges and ours and obviously the ongoing implementation of existing immigrations relations with Australia."
Either Rudd was lying, or the dramatic new policy was developed on the hop over the next two days. New Matilda asked Burke a number of questions about the development of the new policy: “Over what period the new policy was developed? How was it developed — ie on whose advice was it considered appropriate? Was any external to government advice sought?”
He replied: “The approach was developed as result of discussions between Prime Minister O’Neill and Prime Minister Rudd."
Burke did not answer a question about whether he mentioned the Dateline interview to Rudd before the policy was announced. He declined to answer any questions about which members of Cabinet knew of the allegations on the grounds of Cabinet confidentiality.
Last Friday, Burke told New Matilda that his conversation with with St George following the airing of the Dateline allegations was “good” but that he had “still hasn’t been able to give me the names of perpetrators or victims, nor have there been formal reports of those”. As Burke would know, an experienced safety officer such as St George would be highly unlikely to risk other staff or inmate’s safety in a preliminary informal conversation before an inquiry was even established.
But because St George did not provide names, Burke concluded that, “in the face of all of that, I think the most effective thing that can be done is you try to have a configuration of system that avoids the possibility of what’s been alleged. I’ve had conversations while I’ve been in Manus but it is not appropriate to disclose them”.
What this appears appears to mean is that Burke will not ensure the “horrific” allegations are “properly investigated”. He did not answer a question about what reports he had requested from DIAC.
A few more details emerged on Saturday when AAP reported that DIAC would establish a review into the Manus and Nauru which would “establish facts, pass on relevant information to Nauru and PNG authorities and recommend improvements to avoid repeat incidents”. (The Nauru detention centre was burnt down and 150 inmates are now locked up on criminal charges).
So DIAC, which itself needs to be investigated, will organise the inquiry.
As the contract contract for the Manus Island detention centre, published exclusively by New Matilda and Detention Logs last week clearly shows, the responsibility for running the Manus detention centre lies with DIAC and contractor G4S.
New Matilda asked Burke what actions he had taken to establish whether St George’s allegations against DIAC were true? His written response was: “There's then a further issue of getting right to the heart of where it was reported, who it was reported to and the separate public service investigation authority that are going to need to have a look at that.” (Public services processes against employees are confidential, administrative processes.)
Two weeks ago, The Guardian and Detention Logs reported that the oversight committee between the PNG and Australian government had never met. This was revealed after Detention Logs requested the minutes of the meeting, only to to be told the documents did not exist because the committee had never met.
Nonetheless, when asked why the committee had never met, Burke told NM: “I am satisfied appropriate oversight arrangements are in place. While there is no doubt there are some areas where we will be improving the facilities, I am confident the facilities are adequate.”
A continual problem for journalists asking Burke and DIAC questions is that the answers nearly always simply repeat the official bureaucratic position rather than engaging with available evidence.
Since the Dateline broadcast, a G4S guard, fearful of being named, has confirmed some of St George’s allegations and pointed out that G4S are making millions while paying local employees $40 a day.
Thirty-two employees and ex-employees of Nauru detention centre also spoke out last week. The riot that saw the prison burned down was, was “an inevitable outcome from a cruel and degrading policy”.
Before the tents were unloaded, Rudd shifted gear again, admitting that the boats might keep coming for months. Local people on Manus watch and worry about mounting piles of waste that are wrecking their environment. They are also concerned that the detention centre will be expanded next to their school.
Burke promises to have asylum seekers on Manus within the week and has declared optimistically to New Matilda: “Because we are doing the significant expansion we are in a situation where issues of design are able to be looked at afresh as well."
Burke’s only suggestion so far is that by segregating people assessed to be aggressive, violent outbursts can be avoided. The 20 or so of the last lot of asylum seekers who have been left on Manus because they are facing criminal charges will be presumably be the first to be segregated as PNG procedures take their course.
But asylum seekers start no more aggressive and self-destructive than the rest of us. But as St George explained, disintegration was a “brewing thing … they reached a point where they can't tolerate it anymore. There's no media coverage, there's no legal representation. It's just become a dark and dirty secret.”
There is a reason why journalists interview ministers when they are making serious allegations about government. It is because ultimately the minister is responsible when portfolio matters are seriously mishandled.
Burke will be hoping the media lose interest in a “proper investigation” and that the tents stay standing until the election is over. He will be hoping too that his mantra about “stopping people drowning” will block out the the “horrific allegations’ involving innocent people. No one wants people to drown. But Burke is so determined to put the new policy into practice that he is even considering sending children under seven to Manus for the first time — but only when DIAC can assure him it is “safe” to do so.