How privatisation infects Australia

My following piece is published today in the Guardian Australia:

The racism was raw. In 2011, John worked inside the Villawood detention centre in Sydney, and had little time for asylum seekers and their plight. He believed they had more rights than he and his co-workers had been given. John was employed by MSS Security, a private company contracted by British multinational Serco for menial work. He claimed that the lack of accountability for the behaviour of his employer proved the immigration detention system was broken. It was his opinion that the Australian army should manage detainees, because companies such as Serco “balk at a problem and remain eternally paranoid about losing the contract with the government”. The racism expressed by John is commonplace; I have met countless others on Christmas Island and at the Curtin detention centre holding similar views.

Nothing, it seems, has happened since that would change his view. Serco has over a billion dollars’ worth of contracts with Canberra to manage the never-ending stream of asylum boats. No other country in the world has outsourced these services to so few companies (you can count on on one hand the corporations receiving the vast bulk of the government’s money). In recent years, countless alleged cases of mismanagement and price-gouging have been documented within Serco and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. These include Canberra’s failure to impose an independent auditing regime to monitor the multinational’s conduct in its many centres and the apparent failure to address potential remaining asbestos risks at Villawood.

Despite such problems, both the Labor and Liberal parties support the model currently in place for immigration detention, and few voices in the mainstream media challenge the underlying philosophy of having a for-profit company managing some of the most vulnerable people in society. The results are high rates of self-harmmental health problems and attempted suicide (all documented last week in a damning report by the Commonwealth and immigration ombudsman), restricted media access and unnecessary commercial-in-confidence agreements between the government and corporations. There is an ethically blurry environment where the more refugees arrive on our shores, the more profits companies make.

The ongoing march for privatisation does not stop here. Rightwing thinktanks in Australia, such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs (a group that refuses to release a list of its financial donors), regularly call for the mass privatisation of state services. This includes the ABC, despite consistent public polling findinghuge support for the broadcaster.

Australia is the most tightly controlled media environment in the western world, with over 70% of print publication owned by US citizen Rupert Murdoch; in the words of John Pilger, “Australia is the world’s first murdochracy”. Indeed, charges against the ABC mirror the comments by James Murdoch about the BBC in 2009: “The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision.”

Imagining a different Australia is possible, but the challenges are great.

The corporate media deliberately conflates “privatisation” with “reform”, and neoliberal ideology is accepted as fact. Even the Greens have embraced a market mechanism to reduce climate change, despite vast evidence questioning for-profit companies being the most appropriate way to do so. Canadian writer Naomi Klein is currently working on a book that will argue that capitalism is inherently incapable of reforming itself to tackle catastrophic changes to our climate.

In Australia, resistance to privatisation is reflected at the ballot box. The vast bulk of voters, according to polling, believe that corporations are the greatest beneficiaries from selling off public assets and overwhelmingly think that the state should own essential infrastructure. Voters also show their displeasure with the outsourcing agenda by often opposing parties that back it. Queensland is a key example, with current moves for mass outsourcing facing huge union opposition.

The left must now do a far better job in providing appealing alternatives. The facts are on its side. According to a recent report by the Australia Institute, electricity privatisation in Victoria has neither increased efficiency nor reduced prices. You won’t hear these uncomfortable truths from neoliberal propagandists. Despite the corporate press praising public-private partnerships, 2013 has seen the collapse of Australia’s biggest transport infrastructure project, Brisbane’s Airport Link tunnel, leaving more than $3bn of debt.

Civil disobedience, akin to protests in Western Australia against theoverwhelming influence of Serco, or detainees on Nauru hunger-strikingfor better care and processing, may be necessary. But more central is understanding how privatisation has become normalised in this country, despite it being opposed by societies across the world. Although states such as Argentina have seen first-hand the disastrous consequences of a rush to privatise water, Australians’ ability to resist similar plans requires a concerted effort from communities, media and politicians to explain the fallacies of accepted wisdom from market fundamentalists and free-marketeer historians who hold extreme views too often dressed up as rational and sensible.

The rot sits deep in Australia. The dumping of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island is enriching countless organisations who know a desperate government when they smell it. Vulture capitalism thrives on poor Pacific islands because the Labor party wants to restrict the ability of the public to humanise the plight of those fleeing Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Iran.

That companies are making a profit from this suffering shames us all.

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