Paul Gregorie

About Paul Gregorie

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Paul has written for various publications including VICE Australia and Sydney’s City Hub.

Manus and Nauru: Foreign investors need to count moral cost

Approx Reading Time-11With Spanish company Ferrovial tabling a takeover of the company that runs Nauru and Manus, a campaign has begun to #LetThemKnow the moral cost.

 


Last week, the No Business in Abuse (NBIA) campaign sent out a briefing paper to Spanish infrastructure giant, Ferrovial. The paper warned that if their planned takeover of Australian company Broadspectrum is successful, they’ll become complicit in the ongoing human rights abuses taking place in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Formerly known as Transfield, Broadspectrum is the lead contractor at both the Nauru and Manus Island offshore detention centres. Under its current contract, the company provides operational, welfare and security services.

In November last year, NBIA released an extensive report detailing Broadspectrum’s involvement in offshore detention. It states that since October 31, 2012, the company has received an average of $1.4 million a day of Australian taxpayers’ money to run the centres.

The report charges Broadspectrum with complicity in a range of gross human rights abuses perpetrated upon the approximate 2,000 asylum seekers at the centres. These include arbitrary detention, in inhumane conditions, and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. It also outlines multiple alleged incidents of sexual assault and child abuse that have been reported at the centres.

“The offshore detention regime wouldn’t be able to function without the participation of businesses like Broadspectrum,” said Rachel Ball, director of advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. She went on to explain that the idea that businesses involved in offshore detention are “not making decisions” but are “simply implementing Government policy” is not what’s actually taking place on-the-ground.

Along with NBIA and GetUp, the Human Rights Law Centre produced the investor alert. Ball told The Big Smoke that the document advises Ferrovial stakeholders of “the various risks that would accrue to them if the takeover bid was successful.”

Launched on December 7, 2015, Ferrovial’s takeover bid has been fraught with uncertainty. Broadspectrum rejected their initial offer, stating that it undervalued their business; while last month, Ferrovial said it was reconsidering the takeover, due to concerns over how long Broadspectrum’s offshore detention contract would continue, as it contributes most of the company’s income.

Questions surrounding Broadspectrum’s contract began in October last year when the government granted a short-term extension, rather than the expected five-year renewal. In early February, they were then given a further 12-month extension. At the same time, the Department of Immigration announced Broadspectrum was no longer the preferred tenderer and they would have to compete with another company for the new contract, now to be awarded in late 2016.

However, as of late last week, it seems more likely the takeover could go ahead. Broadspectrum’s shares rose to their highest level in a month, due to an increase in the price of oil. This led investors to suggest that Ferrovial may make a higher bid, while the Spanish company made a further extension to the closing date of their offer until April 4, 2016.

But how effective might the NBIA briefing be in swaying the decisions of Ferrovial and their investors?

This type of shareholder activism has already had an impact in the fight against offshore detention. In August last year, the nation’s sixth-largest super fund, HESTA, divested from Broadspectrum, withdrawing its $23 million stake in the company. Although it was officially stated the super fund made the move because of the financial interests of its members, many surmised it was triggered by the influence of divestment campaigns and union members with HESTA accounts.

According to executive director of NBIA Shen Narayanasamy, it’s important to stress that “indefinite and mandatory detention as a first response to asylum seekers is something only Australia does.” And besides “the fact that it’s horrifically cruel,” it’s also extraordinarily expensive.

NBIA members began formally meeting with superannuation funds, banks and investors in November 2014. Narayanasamy found, when meeting with stakeholders, like HESTA, and informing them of the offshore detention regime, that “they actually said, ‘This is not something we want to touch’.”

Since then, a number of super funds have divested, including NGS Super, and Broadspectrum has still not signed the five-year contract they’d been expected to.

A second part to the NBIA campaign has recently been set up, involving institutions – such as councils, hospitals and schools – taking a pledge not to become clients of the companies involved in running offshore detention. “Over the last month and a half, four local councils across the country have voted to adopt the NBIA pledge and stop contracting with both Broadspectrum and Wilson,” explained Narayanasamy.

Last month, Marrickville council became one of those four. Greens councillor Sylvie Ellsmore put forward the motion to take the pledge. She said it’s had a concrete impact already, as the council actually ended a small contract with Wilson Security, a subcontractor at the offshore detention centres.

Ellsmore believes that the Government has private businesses running the centres, so they can “create arm’s-length,” making them less responsible and maintaining a level of secrecy. “They quite deliberately do that, rather than send in Australian public servants, who have all these other layers of accountability,” explained Ellsmore, the Greens candidate for the seat of Sydney in the coming federal election. “By having a private company, the Government’s trying to remove a lot of that oversight.”

Both Broadspectrum and Ferrovial have not responded to requests for comment.

 

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