What’s the common theme to these incidents in the Immigration and “Border Force” portfolio in the last two years? Each reflects a consistent pattern: the worst cases of maladministration possible within government have been hidden by the obscurity that comes with outsourcing.
After the revelation of repeated incidents of sexual assault and child abuse at Australia’s asylum seeker detention facility on Nauru, the Department of Immigration admits it has long known about over 50 cases of assault and done nothing about them, saying that they are entirely a matter for the Nauruan government and the contractors who operate the facility. Later, the department admits that its contract with Nauru facility operator Transfield is so poorly worded that, despite sexual assaults of women and children and other security breaches, Transfield has met all its contractual service obligations and no penalties have been triggered. Indeed, the chair of Transfield, Diane Smith-Gander, declares that she is “proud” of what Transfield has done on Nauru.
After riots break out on Christmas Island a fortnight ago, it is revealed staff of Serco, which is contracted to operate the Christmas Island immigration detention facility, fled their positions, allowing detainees to run amok, while other staff were so poorly trained they didn’t recognise an alarm indicating that a detainee, later found dead, had escaped the facility. Serco insists “Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre is appropriately staffed for the detainees at the facility” but is conducting its own in-house investigation.
In the course of her Senate committee work, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young travels to Nauru. While there, she is stalked and surveiled by personnel of Wilson Security, which is subcontracted to provide security at the Nauru detention facility. When found out, Wilson says it was only for 12 hours and involved a rogue staff member. Later, multiple sources reveal the surveillance was for the duration of the Senator’s three-day stay and involved up to eight staff, with Hanson-Young photographed and notes made on whom she met with.
While Wilson apologises to Hanson-Young, the question of who ordered the surveillance, its duration and why it was ordered remains unanswered. A Senate committee calls a Wilson employee at the centre of the surveillance to give evidence, but he declines to appear.
Expatriate contractors working for security provider G4S are identified as having participated in the assault on asylum seeker Reza Barati that led to his death in Australia’s Manus Island asylum seeker detention facility in February 2014, but only PNG nationals face court for his murder. The exact circumstances in which Barati was murdered, which staff were involved in his murder and why the government initially tried to blame Barati for his own death by insisting he had escaped remain unclear.
People under our duty of care murdered, sexually and physically abused and allowed to escape to their deaths, and a Senator engaging in her legislative duties was stalked and surveiled by those affected by her committee work. But outsourcing places a veil of secrecy over these activities that simply would not exist if the activities were carried out by public servants.
The traditional rationale for outsourcing is that private companies can provide services more cheaply than public servants, and have skills that the public service lacks. Over time, this becomes self-fulfilling — whatever sector-specific skills were once held within the public service atrophy with outsourcing, with skilled public servants often leaving to establish their own companies offering the same services they once provided for a multiple of the salaries they earnt in the public service, taking advantage of their knowledge of internal processes and connections within the public sector hierarchy.
But increasingly, the single greatest advantage governments obtain from outsourcing isn’t cheaper services but the massive reduction in accountability that outsourcing enables. Consider the contrast between the public sector and contractors like Serco, Transfield and Wilson:
- Public sector documents are subject to freedom of information laws, enabling outside parties to gain an insight into government decision-making and awareness otherwise out of public view. Internal documents produced by contractors providing the same services as the public sector are beyond the scope of FOI;
- Public servants must appear regularly before Senate estimates committees to face scrutiny over their behaviour and how they spent public money. Contractors must be specifically requested to appear before references committees and, as the case of the stalking of Hanson-Young shows, may decline to do so; and
- Public servants are subject to an APS Code of Conduct governing their behaviour in how they perform their roles, as well as a jungle of procedural, expenditure and record-keeping restrictions that limit their capacity to evade accountability. Private contractors face no such requirements; indeed, unlike public servants, contractor staff do not even have to be Australian citizens — companies like Serco rely heavily on imported staff via 457 visas, who can return to their home countries and beyond the reach of Australian jurisdiction if necessary.
Outsourcing thus enables the expenditure of public money, and the implementation of public policy, without any of the established restraints and scrutiny that normally limit public sector behaviour. Murder, rape and harassment of elected officials can be dismissed as an issue for contractors or other governments, despite occurring within Australian-funded facilities or being carried out by Australian-funded staff.
It doesn’t need to be this way. How do we know? Because the Immigration Department has shown us. As Crikey reported earlier this month, Immigration obtained legal advice that it could impose an extensive range of restrictions on contractors and sub-contractors, in effect turning them into de facto and de jure public servants for the department’s purposes. While Immigration has used such powers, bizarrely, to impose drug tests on contractors, its primary goal is to ensure it can prevent anyone involved, however indirectly, in the provision of services involving asylum seekers, from revealing abuse and criminal conduct using the powers of the Australian Border Force Act.
That is, when it comes to undermining accountability, outsourcing is in effect abandoned and private providers are insourced into the secrecy requirements of governments. But the same stringent requirements could easily and legally be used to insource accountability for outsourced services, and the companies that provide them, to provide the same levels of scrutiny as public servants face. If contractors want taxpayer-funded contracts, they could be subject to FOI, they could be required to appear regularly before Senate committees, they could be subject to the same record-keeping, conduct and procedural requirements as the public service.
However, that would wreck the primary advantage governments get from outsourcing, the ability to wish away responsibility for even the most serious abuses and negligence.