The disaster-prone Immigration Department has inflicted an extraordinary $70 million cost on the taxpayer after the Commonwealth chose to settle a class action over its Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea just hours before a mammoth trial was about to get underway in Victoria.
The centre was reopened by the Gillard government in 2012 and retained by the Coalition after it was elected in 2013. In early 2014, the centre reached a peak population of nearly 1400 men following the surge in asylum seeker arrivals under Labor. In April 2016, the centre was found to be in breach of the Papua New Guinea constitution.
A class action by legal firm Slater and Gordon involving more than 1900 former detainees was scheduled to begin hearings in Melbourne this morning, involving claims of “serious physical and psychological injuries”, as well as illegal detention in the wake of the PNG court ruling. The trial was expected to furnish extensive evidence of mistreatment and poor conditions at the Australian-funded facility.
The Manus Island centre has been the focus of repeated complaints about poor health services and poor security provided by contractors engaged by the Department of Immigration. In 2014, the asylum seeker Reza Barati was murdered by security staff; later that year, a Departmental official refused to provide timely approval for the medical treatment of another detainee, Hamid Kehazaei, who later died. The Department has also been responsible for a long list of major problems relating to its handling of offshore detention, painstakingly detailed by the Australian National Audit Office, as well as numerous other blunders in other policy areas. Problems have occurred under both Labor and Liberal governments.
The risk of Immigration losing a major court case is addressed in the Statement of Risks in the budget papers: the most recent budget stated in its Fiscal Risks section:
“The Australian Government funds the care and management of asylum seekers in Regional Processing Centres (RPCs) to support host governments’ management, removal and resettlement of these people. Any significant changes in the number of asylum seekers managed under these arrangements, the operations of the facilities, estimates of the number of refugees being resettled, or the outcome of related cases before the courts, may incur a cost or generate cost reductions which are unquantifiable at this time.”
Despite a list of major blunders by the Department while Peter Dutton has been minister and Mike Pezzullo Departmental Secretary, neither have admitted to systemic problems within the Department or face questions about their own stewardship of the organisation.
The $70 million in compensation amounts to around $37,000 per claimant, but doesn’t include legal costs.