Barely a day goes by without new allegations of sexual assault, self-harm, violence or dysfunction at Australia’s privatised, immigration centres.
Whether on the mainland, Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, detention contractors Serco and Transfield are seemingly immune from censure. No controversy, failure or aggression by their staff is enough to lose the billion-dollar deals with Australia.
They’re bullet proof, protected by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and a political culture that refuses to apologise or care if human rights are breached.
The recent news that Transfield was named “preferred bidder” by the then Abbott government, for another five years running the offshore facilities, was therefore unsurprising. The decision goes to the heart of a broken relationship between failing accountability and refugees who are deemed unpeople, those not worthy of appropriate support.
They’re often brown, Muslim and poor, easily dismissed and silenced in an age of mass migration and incarceration. If the litany of revelations and secrecy from this year’s Senate inquiries, including details of alleged water-boarding, weren’t enough to kill Transfield’s chances of having its contract renewed, then there must be something else at play.
I’ve spoken exclusively to a person involved in a bid for Australia’s immigration detention contract. He agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity and I didn’t view his statements as being solely based on self-interest. I’ll call him Greg.
From my discussion with him I understand there were up to nine bids for the contract including Transfield/Wilson Security, Serco, Spotless, Agility Logistics and five other large and small entities from Australia and PNG.
Many of the bidding companies are experienced in the profitable business of detention. Transfield is the incumbent offshore service provider while Serco has the on-shore contract. Other bidders have previously undertaken large-scale projects for the Commonwealth Government including building offshore processing facilities and providing logistics services.
Greg was shocked that Transfield was announced as the “preferred bidder”. He told me that when bids were submitted in April, he thought Transfield had a good chance of retaining the contract because it appeared to have done a “reasonable job” and hadn’t been accused of abuse and mismanagement like G4S, a previous service provider on Manus Island.
Then came the Senate enquiry and everything changed.
“I thought they couldn’t possibly retain the contract after these allegations”, Greg said. “There are over 100 serious allegations made against the company and they were totally unprofessional in their responses to questions from the Senators.
“They took even the simplest of questions on notice and behaved in an arrogant way towards them. They were caught out manipulating the truth and withholding critical pieces of information. Not to mention they spied on a member of the Australian Parliament during her visit to Nauru.”
Since the Senate enquiry there have been more allegations of sexual abuse including a rape allegation. The three accused Wilson Security employees were quickly evacuated from PNG and returned to Australia before PNG police could interview them. Transfield and Wilson had, until recently, been reluctant to assist the PNG police with enquiries.
I asked Greg why he thought Transfield had obtained the contract and he pointed out the close connections between the company and the Liberal Party. The company’s Chair is Diane Smith-Gander, a well-connected business woman who is President of the Chief Executive Women, a group of 300 senior women.
After the recent elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the Prime Ministership, she was quoted as calling on the government to more clearly focus on women. The former Chairman of Transfield, Tony Shepherd, is now the head of the Commission of Audit established by former PM Tony Abbott.
“The decision to reward Transfield was probably a captain’s call given the closeness of Transfield’s current and former chairpersons to the Liberal Party”, Greg argued.
Greg confirmed that rumours of Transfield’s demise had been circulating for weeks before the announcement at the end of August that they were the preferred tenderer.
“When the announcement was made there was stunned silence in our office”, he said. “The Government wants us to believe that the bid from the company with hundreds of allegations of mismanagement, human rights abuse, child sexual abuse and employee complaints was still a better option than any other bid.”
With no feedback on the failing bids, Greg told me that this was clearly a political decision, outside the scope and consideration of the tender.
“Sort of makes government tendering a pointless exercise,” he said. The decision to reward Transfield, he argued, “puts Australia in the same league as undeveloped countries in terms of corruption.”
Privately managed offshore processing centres are set to continue for the foreseeable future. “If offshore processing has to occur then surely it’s better to be done by a team that treats the people properly”, Greg explained.
Sadly this isn’t a new phenomenon and has been occurring in Australia for years. For more than two decades, Canberra has been sending its refugees to corporations with no financial incentive to treat people with respect. Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to Australia. Both Britain and the United States outsource some of their immigrant facilities to companies, such as Serco and CCA, with a history of mismanagement and abuse.
Public outrage, if it occurs at all, is small and mostly politically impotent. A rare and notable exception is the growing divestment campaign in Australia against Transfield, hitting the company where it counts, the bottom line.
Even Transfield head Diane Smith-Gander missed out on heading Tourism Australia because the government feared her association with Transfield would focus attention on the toxic immigration issue.
There is current debate in Washington about immigration and prison reform, to lower massive incarceration rates, but virtually nobody is talking about the profit motive as a key factor in perpetuating the skyrocketing number of people behind bars. However, Democrat Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is pushing for an end to privatised prisons.
In August, Transfield chief executive Graeme Hunt defended his company from an onslaught of criticism and claimed that his firm was just “executing the services we’re contracted to.”
He then explained the nub of the privatised immigration issue by arguing that off-shore detention had “been issued and implemented by two successive governments of different political persuasions, remains supported by both major parties and, so far as I can tell, the vast majority of the Australian people”.
A bipartisan commitment to cruelty against refugees is a global scourge from Europe to Australia. Until desperate people are treated with dignity and respect, and not numbers to be processed, jailed and outsourced to multinationals with woeful human rights records, the detention industrial complex will continue to thrive.
* Antony Loewenstein is one of Australia’s most prominent freelance journalists, and the author of a new book, Disaster Capitalism, available here.