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Our immigrant detention centres are neither socially nor economically rational

By Duncan Kerr - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

In February this year the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman released a report addressing the conditions in which asylum seekers have been held in the privatised detention facilities run by Australasian Correctional Management (ACM).

The Ombudsman’s report found systemic deficiencies in the management of these facilities. It identified problems such as racial abuse of detainees, inappropriate use of force and "trashing" of detainees’ rooms by ACM staff; overcrowding; unduly long periods of detention; reports of sexual assaults on women and children; and incidents of attempted suicide and other violence arising from tensions associated with detention conditions. Those deficiencies are not dissimilar to those that are reported to have arisen in prisons and other detention facilities overseas run by ACM’s American parent company, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. In Senate Estimates hearings early this year the Immigration Department revealed that Wackenhut influences management practices in all its subsidiaries, and that the Department knew this when ACM’s tender was being evaluated.

Although there is much we do not yet know, a clearer picture is starting to emerge of what has been happening behind the security fences of ACM-run detention facilities in Australia in recent years. The real story is one in which Australians can take no pride. It is a story of unjustified secrecy, apparent mismanagement, and neglect of our duties towards some of the most powerless people within our national borders.


It is also a story that shows the practical consequences of the Howard government’s ideological mission to privatise core public services. That mission is both wrong-headed and wasteful. In this case, the government engineered a situation where management of asylum seekers was contracted out to an arm of a for-profit corporation with a questionable international track record. Fair questioning of ACM’s service delivery in Australian detention centres has been met by cries of ‘commercial in confidence’ or ‘conspiracy theory’, and important details of the service contract have been kept away from public scrutiny because litigation in relation to the initial tender process has been brought against the Commonwealth. Against this background, the Ombudsman attempted to inject accountability back into the situation by conducting such inquiries into the privatised detention centres as his mandate and resources allow. The Ombudsman’s report was rejected out of hand by Minister Ruddock as unbalanced and based on pre-conceived notions, even though it was consistent with many of the findings of the narrower Flood inquiry into immigration detention procedures which he himself commissioned.

There is nothing economically or socially rational about this state of affairs. The decision to privatise detention services has placed the Commonwealth in a position of unnecessary legal, financial and moral vulnerability. It is not inconceivable that an incoming Labor Federal government could find itself in a situation akin to that of the Bracks government in Victoria last year, in relation to the Deer Park prison which was established as a private facility during the Kennett years. Evidence of substandard service delivery by Corrections Corporation of Australia required the Bracks government to take public control of that facility. This came at no small economic cost to the taxpayer. That cost would have been avoided by earlier recognition that contract negotiations are no substitute for responsible and accountable public management of the delivery of core services.

The ACM detention centre issue is just one aspect of the larger issue of the erosion of the public sector in our society. This has devalued the notion of the common good and the common interest, and brought disenchantment with the processes of government and other political participation. Yet access to health, education, a clean environment and a range of social and cultural provisions is properly a public matter, based on well-grounded rights of citizenship in a democratic society. While the efficiency of the public sector is important, what is most important for the community is the effectiveness of a given service and its social purpose.

If we do not see this and take steps accordingly, the costs will be unacceptably high. We will not survive as a real democracy if we do not address the shrinkage of quality public education. We will not hold together as a society if the rich separate themselves physically from the rest of us and retreat to live in walled, gated enclaves patrolled by private security firms – leaving even law and order as a poorly funded public residue. We will not be able to respect ourselves as Australians if we subject our fellow human beings, to whom we have responsibilities, to inhumane conditions as a result of our departure from a long-held commitment to public scrutiny and accountability.

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This is based on an article that was first published in The Canberra Times on 13 March 2001.

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About the Author

Hon. Duncan Kerr is Federal member for Denison (Tas) and was Federal Attorney General and Minister for Justice in the Keating government. He is author of Elect the Ambassador: Building Democracy in a Globalised World.

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