How to fight mass privatisation one industry at a time

My following article appears in The Hoopla today:

The rate of incarceration of Indigenous Australians is higher per capita than it was for  blacks living in apartheid South Africa.

The Australian Institute of Criminology released figures this year that confirm the problem. One in four are behind bars and the over-representation of Indigenous people in West Australian jails is the highest of any indigenous group in the OECD.

It’s a national shame that barely registers in the mainstream media, even though many are warehoused by Serco, the British multinational, in places such as Acadia prison outside Perth. Michael Stutchbury, the former Economics Editor of The Australian and now editor of The Financial Reviewwrote in 2011 that this facility should be a “potential model for public prisons”. Privatise the lot was the mantra and screw the human cost.

Australia is following the failed American model. Although 2012 figures found that the prison population decreased there for the third year in a row, African-Americans remained disproportionately affected. On current trends, one in three black males born today can expect to spend some time in jail during their lifetimes.

This is akin to modern slavery, writes US writer Michelle Alexander in her incendiary book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness. It is “the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement”.

This is no accident and is fueled by the private firms running the countless prisons across America. Private prisons lobby state and federal politicians to ensure a set number of immigrants and other “illegals” are kept behind bars and profits are guaranteed at an agreed rate.

This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind. 

One of the key reasons I’ve spent the last three years writing my new book (and forthcoming documentary) Profits of Doom is to document how the corporation has become more powerful than the state. I’ve visited Afghanistan and Pakistan to reveal the ways in which the US and its allies have privatised war-making since 9/11 and caused abuses on a massive scale.

Papua New Guinea, despite receiving more than half a billion dollars of Australian aid annually, remains mired in corruption and a desperate resource curse. Australian firms such as Rio Tinto are keen to return to mining in Bougainville despite causing environmental and human carnage in the 1980s and 90s.

US neighbour Haiti, more than three years after a devastating earthquake, is refused true independence from Washington and forced to agree to building South Korean run sweatshops making clothes for Kmart and Walmart.

In Australia, successive governments have outsourced the management of asylum seekers to corporations such as G4S and Serco (the latter now has more than $1.86 billion worth of contracts with Canberra). A senior Serco whistle-blower gave me internal documents that revealed endemic under-staffing and under-training of guards in remote facilities. The source detailed the culture of a firm whose record in Britain is routinely condemned by government reports and yet this has little or no effect on receiving further contracts.

This is neo-liberal ideology without consideration of the human factor. 

On the face of it this may all sound hopeless and I routinely receive (including during an online conversation with the Guardian last week) questions about any possible solutions. I believe there are ways to both re-establish political trust with the voting public and improve services for the population.

  • Politicians should be forced to explain how privatising essential services benefits the general public and not just corporations with the most effective connections.
  • The media should not accept overly restrictive access to detention centres and simply refuse to play along with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship when they don’t humanise the lives of asylum seekers.
  • There must be greater investment in publicly funded health and education as we should not follow the British push towards for-profit schools.
  • We should not outsource water, natural resources, war, aid and detention centres to the cheapest bidder. It rarely if ever delivers anything other than a shoddy job.

Our politicians should stop taking lobbying trips to Britain – yes, Western Australian Treasurer,Troy Buswell, lover of Serco in the UK, I’m looking at you – and acknowledge that “efficiency” isn’t best served by selling key assets to foreign or local, private interests.

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