My following article appears in Crikey today:
The Crikey/ACIJ series on Australian companies profiting from the foreign aid budget is a welcome discussion of the rapid privatisation of services in Australia and overseas, an area largely ignored by the mainstream media. The market, lightly regulated or not, is simply accepted by most commentators as the best way to order society and generate economic prosperity. There is no indication that the federal election campaign will question these assumptions.
Guy Rundle correctly wrote recently in the The Age that Kevin Rudd (and therefore Julia Gillard) believed “core economic processes could not be challenged, and that social power could not, and should not, be more widely distributed”.
My investigation of various levels of Australian society — from detention centres to military services and infrastructure to aid projects — reveals an extreme privatisation agenda by stealth with virtually no public or media scrutiny. The nation is increasingly controlled by unaccountable corporations either based in Australia or off-shore.
The ideology of selling off essential assets or services is bi-partisan and reveals a callous disregard for the lives of those being controlled by faceless businesses. It has become an article of faith for the corporate press to “let the market” decide rather than examining whether services will actually improve and society benefited.
America is increasingly moving down the path of privatising key roads and infrastructure, a trend Australia is seemingly keen to follow. The inherent dangers were clear to see, wrote Mother Jones in 2007, revealing how the general public was often shafted behind those who could afford the expensive toll-roads, hospitals and other important services.
Ageing infrastructure and a lack of government willingness to publicly invest almost guarantee the welcoming arms of corporations with the public interest far from their priority. It’s not uncommon for the same companies being paid to advise governments how to structure privatisation deals then double-dip by investing in the projects themselves.
The lesson from the US, ignored in Australia, is that the rate of privatisation is increasing as government oversight is either undercut or simply overwhelmed. A recent report by humanitarian aid watchdog Development Initiatives found an ever-increasing global budget to deliver aid and conflict relief but little ability to accurately determine where all the money was going and to whom. Waste remained endemic.
I wrote recently in Crikey about the re-opening of the Curtin Detention Centre. Back in May virtually no reporters acknowledged that British multinational Serco, with a history of troubling allegations by detainees in their care, would be running the facility. Nothing has changed since. Only the Greens complained in mid-July with the Labor government’s $100 million boost for expanded detention centres but again there was no mention of the company benefiting from the money.
I continue hearing serious allegations of mistreatment by Serco staff at Villawood detention centre and Christmas Island. The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office began an investigation in May to determine whether Tamil asylum seekers were held in detention for too long. Tamils told the Refugee Action Coalition that Serco management on Christmas Island refused them blankets and warm clothes during a hunger strike.
ABC TV’s Hungry Beast briefly mentioned Serco’s role in Australia last year and explained how the company is employed by the ADF, runs prisons in South Australia and Western Australia and is “one of the two favoured bid consortiums for the new Sydney metro rail line”.
It’s little known in Australia that KBR, formerly connected to Dick Cheney’s serial over-charging company Halliburton, controls some of the country’s key infrastructure. The firm faces serious allegations of mismanagement in Iraq, alleged rape of KBR employees in Iraq, gross negligence across the Middle East and use and abuse of private mercenaries in US war zones.
In late July, KBR announced it had won a $US330 million contract design to build a waste-water treatment plant in Melbourne. This project will operate alongside extensive work in the transport and mineral extraction industries, civil infrastructure, defence services and development for Australia’s Asia-Pacific aid work.
There has been no public discussion over outsourcing essential services — especially areas that affect Australia’s economic independence and climate change mitigation — to a company that remains highly controversial and unaccountable to the Australian parliament and people.
It is unquestioned within the corporate press and the Labor and Liberal parties for at least three decades that the reduction of government in the running of a country is a positive development. It’s a global phenomenon and particularly exaggerated in nations throughout the developing world undergoing profound economic, social or environmental disaster.
The other area of growing outsourcing is intelligence and private security operations. The Washington Post’s recent report on America’s out-of-control contracting industry revealed a world of nearly one million individuals with conflicting agendas fighting a marginal and exaggerated terrorist threat around the globe.
While there is no evidence to suggest Australia has followed exactly the same path, Britain and Australia after 9/11 actively colluded with contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan in the transfer of suspected terrorists. There are still many unanswered questions about the groups involved in the illegal rendition of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib and the alleged role of mercenaries in their extraction.
The most obvious example of private contractors being used with the knowledge of the Australian government is the PNG mining sector. Countless human rights abuses continue to occur on a daily basis.
It’s clear across the Western world that elections are the worst time to have serious debates over government policy. But the privatisation agenda is rarely even discussed in other, less manic times. This isn’t an argument against any and all outsourcing of services but a call to better investigate the reasons behind its rapid expansion across the country.
Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, said in 2007 that, “the real legacy of neoliberalism is the story of the income gap. It destroyed the tools that narrowed the gap between rich and poor”.
Australia is changing in our time and almost nobody has noticed.
*Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.