Yes, a Brisbane company worth $8 was awarded a $385 million contract to manage detention on Nauru. No, we shouldn’t be surprised.

 

 

Well, they’ve done it again. The government has paid an unknown company untold wealth to manage our hated offshore detention program, without due process and tender. As reported by The Guardian, “a Brisbane construction company had $8 in assets and had not commenced trading, when it was awarded a government contract – ultimately worth $1.6bn – to run Australia’s offshore processing on Nauru. The contract was awarded after the government ordered a ‘financial strength assessment’ that was actually done on a different company.

“Canstruct International Pty Ltd had eight $1 shares in assets in 2017, company filings show, when the department of home affairs asked accountants KPMG to assess it for its ability to ‘provide garrison and welfare services’ for more than 1000 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru. Since then the contract – originally worth $385m – has been amended seven times without competitive tender. The contract now totals $1.6bn. With just over 100 asylum seekers and refugees still held on the island after eight years, it now costs more than $4.3m each year – more than $350,000 a month – for each person held.”

This, of course, is merely the latest example, with a similar contract awarded to a little-known security provider called Paladin, one famously registered to a beach shack on Kangaroo Island.

As Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law (UNSW) Jane McAdam wrote for The Conversation in 2019, “According to media reports, there were mysterious characters, including a company director denied a PNG visa and sanctioned by Australia’s home affairs department. The Australian government also ran a “limited tender” process, inviting only one party, Paladin, to bid.

“The dollar figures were extraordinary: the contract to provide housing and security for refugees on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island was for A$423 million over 22 months, or A$20.9 million a month. That’s about A$1,600 per day per person – not including food or welfare services. A suite at a five-star hotel in Sydney costs less than this. Of course, the conditions for a refugee on Manus Island are nothing like those in a luxury downtown hotel. A retired logistics manager estimated that the real cost of accommodation is A$108 per person per night, which explains why Paladin is estimated to be pocketing a profit of A$17 million a month. Keeping refugees on Nauru and Manus Island costs Australian taxpayers 56 times more than it would have them live among us,” she wrote.

Wind the clock forward to 2019, and a day after PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape called for the Paladin’s $423-millon contract to be axed, both Australian and Papua New Guinean governments have agreed to extend it.

Yesterday, Marape said that he wanted to push Manus Island away from foreign dominion, stating that “…we don’t intend for foreign security companies to engage in businesses including security.”

Regarding our involvement, the Australian government was due to discuss a contract extension by the end of the week. Labor’s Kristina Keneally has called for Peter Dutton to release the findings of a review of Manus Island, desperate to know whether the contract is returning “value for money”. So much for pathos.

In the same year, Papua New Guinea news publication Loop reported, the Prime Minister of PNG has officially asked the Australian government to cancel Paladin’s security contract on Manus Island, so local businesses can profit from the refugees stuck there.

“Our government has made representation to Australia to cancel this contract and open a tender process. The contract must be fair and transparent, PNG companies must have the right to compete for this contract in a fair and open manner…in this instance, I’ve proposed that Manus-based companies be given fairness to compete,” Marape said.

Marape also noted the decision of the Supreme Court, ordering the closure of the processing centre in 2017, pushing those left on the island to move to the newer site located in Lorengau.

“Asylum seekers have since been given the opportunity to move to alternate accommodations…since the Supreme Court decision, all refugees are no longer in detention and are moving freely around,” Marape said.

However, the reality of the issue is quite different. According to one of the refugees in question, they are subject to a curfew and are “free to move anytime on Manus, but we are restricted from leaving the camp between 6 pm until 6 am.”

Clearly, the re-tendering process does not mean any sort of closure for the stranded and hopeless on Manus, but does speak to the commercialisation of the situation writ large. Paladin may have been first in the door, but others will seemingly follow long before empathy locks it for good.

In the words of an individual stuck between two separate parties looking to benefit from his statelessness, “we know both the PNG government and Australian government contractors are making many millions of dollars from our suffering…therefore it is very apparent that both governments see us as nothing more than a commercial commodity.”

In 2016, a paper warned that if Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial went ahead with their planned takeover of Australian company Broadspectrum, 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, 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. The company went ahead with the takeover, later selling the company in 2019 to Ventia for $465 million dollars.

As McAdam wrote, “the so-called ‘Paladin Affair’ raises the broader problem of Australia’s overall approach to asylum. It highlights the challenge of Australia trying to impose its refugee policy on another country and seeking to “contract out” its international legal obligations – something it cannot do, as a matter of law.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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