Representatives from a major service provider for the Australian-backed detention centre on Nauru have faced a grilling by a parliamentary committee, and may now be forced to appear again after struggling to respond to questions put to them by Senators.
Senior staff from Transfield Services, which has a $1.2 billion contract with the Commonwealth to oversee the running and upkeep of the detention centre, deferred their answers to a range of questions including the frequency of blackouts in the centre, the gender breakdown of their staff, and the reporting of alleged sexual assaults.
The inquiry is being held in the wake of the Moss Review, which found evidence of serious sexual assaults in the detention centre.
The treatment of asylum seekers by guards has come into particular focus since the review, with multiple allegations that staff have acted inappropriately towards women and children in ablution and shower blocs.
Derek Osborne, Executive General Manager for Logistics & Facilities Management, told the senate committee male staff are not permitted in the children’s and women’s showering areas. However, evidence from asylum seekers and submissions to the inquiry suggest the practice has taken place.
The Moss Review also found credible evidence that guards had traded drugs in the centre in return for sexual favours from asylum seekers.
The committee was told drug and alcohol testing of staff was now “routine”, though Transfield staff took on notice the exact date such testing had begun.
Transfield On Notice
As Labor and Greens committee members pushed Transfield staff for more detailed answers the hearing quickly turned terse, with “I’ll have to take that on notice” becoming the mantra of the morning.
The frustration of both senators and Transfield staff was evident.
Pushed by committee chair Alex Gallacher, the staff declined to provide even an estimate of the gender breakdown of their workforce on the island. Gallacher regularly reminded them they were obliged to provide answers to questions when possible.
“I find it extraordinary that the three people at the table don’t know. So take that on notice, that I think that’s extraordinary,” Gallacher said.
In defending her team, Transfield Chief Executive of Operations Kate Munnings said she did not want to provide the committee with inaccurate information.
At one point, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young asked when Transfield had become aware of the allegations that guards had traded drugs for sexual favours, and whether it had been before the Moss Review began.
Hanson-Young refused to let the Transfield staff take it on notice.
“We’re not willing to provide inaccurate information so please, accept our answer,” Munnings said.
The question was eventually taken on notice.
Suitability Of Facilities Flagged
In his interrogation of the staff, Labor senator Kim Carr put a series of questions relating to the number of power outages and standards of the ‘tents’ asylum seekers live in while waiting for processing in the centre.
Transfield staff, who described the dwellings as “marquees” rather than “tents”, said a problem with mould was being dealt with by them and the Department, and that the average temperature on Nauru was “low to mid 30s”.
Discomfort as a result of that heat is a regular complaint made by asylum seekers, and the Transfield representatives conceded the “marquees” were generally not air-conditioned.
They said some other facilities do have air-conditioning installed, including the medical centre.
“So you’ve got to get sick to get into the air conditioning, do you?” Carr asked.
Earlier in the morning, Transfield staff outlined internal whistleblower procedures for employees.
As recent reports have revealed, Transfield employees can be dismissed for their social media activity, or for publicly exposing the conditions in the Nauru or Manus Island centres.
The committee was told Transfield staff have options for internal whistleblowing, including and independent phone line where they can make anonymous tip-offs.
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