My investigation for Australian publication Crikey:
British multinational Serco is angling for more work in Australia. In August, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the New South Wales government was preparing to start outsourcing public housing in 2017, with about a third to be transferred to non-government groups over four years. Serco told what was then Mike Baird’s government that it was a horrible idea to allow small providers to take control of housing and authorities should entrust the work to larger, private players.
The new leadership of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is set to continue the plan. In a statement to Crikey, Minister for Family, Community Services and Social Housing Pru Goward said that tenders were to be issued in late March and the result would “grow the supply of social, affordable and private housing”.
Goward claimed that the properties at Macquarie Park, Waterloo, Telopea, Riverwood and Arncliffe guaranteed the delivery of between 2000 and 3000 new households. She went on:
“The announcement to transfer around 18,000 public housing properties to community housing providers for management will provide extra resources for community providers to give more support to vulnerable people.”
Governments and many in the media use the word “reform” when describing the slow but seemingly inevitable push towards removing regulation or outsourcing public services to the private sector. The Trump administration has already massively reduced regulation across the US. Reform should mean a positive shift to better service delivery or a reduction in corruption. Instead, privatisation often worsens inefficiency and unaccountability. The evidence for this is overwhelming in Australia and around the world. The public service is far from perfect, of course, but, in theory at least, provides more checks and balances.
Australia is following the failed path set by the US and UK in allowing unreliable and overcharging corporations the right to manage water, energy services, prisoners, refugees and data. When something goes wrong, privacy is breached or an asylum seeker is murdered, there’s little accountability or change of policy. Heads don’t roll, ministers rarely apologise let alone resign and nobody takes responsibility. Essential polling in 2015 found that the vast majority of Australians believed that privatisation “mainly benefits the private sector”.
When politicians or mainstream commentators push privatisation and claim it’ll be benefit society, they’re likely either extreme ideologues or keen to boost their corporate mates and political party benefactors.
Serco told the Herald that it was keen to “find a solution” to social housing in Australia and backed institutional investment in the scheme. The company promoted its work in Britain as a model for what it could achieve in Australia, perhaps hoping nobody would Google, “Serco housing + Britain + failure”. The conservative UK government’s spending watchdog discovered in 2014 that Serco was unable to provide adequate housing for asylum seekers and often took on housing units without even looking at them to check conditions and quality. Serco has faced constant criticism over providing accommodation in the UK that wasn’t fit for human habitation.
The list of Serco disasters in the UK is long, from lying about its privatised out of hours GP service in Cornwall to abusing refugees at its Yarl’s Wood facility. I visited Yarl’s Wood in 2014 and heard damning complaints about untrained and uncaring staff. In the same year, I witnessed asylum housing in Sheffield managed by Serco competitor G4S and tenants told me horror stories of unsafe properties.
The problems in the UK aren’t just about Serco or G4S but a Home Office and government, both Labor and Tory, that collude with them. One needs the other to provide profit and opportunities. Australia has no excuse to follow this model when damning evidence exists from Britain that proves the unwillingness of corporate entities to provide adequate facilities for the most vulnerable in society. The awful realization after my research was that the most marginalised had little political voice so Serco and G4S could behave as badly as they like and get away with it.
Governments realised long ago that the public was surprisingly willing to accept abuse of those groups deemed worthy of it, such as refugees, Muslims or the poor, if their favoured media partners demonised them enough. If those individuals happen to be housed or managed by a private company, such as Serco, sympathy levels often hit rock bottom. In the British corporate press, Serco is still often treated sympathetically.
Serco is also looking to expand its prisons in Australia to fill a financial gap left by dwindling numbers of refugees in mainland detention centres. In 2015, with the company reeling from scandals in the UK, Australia’s asylum seeker population propped up its bottom line. No more. However, its record is already tainted despite running the country’s largest jail in Acacia, Western Australia until 2021. In New Zealand, with Serco only running one prison, the country’s Department of Corrections recently found the South Auckland jail at Wiri to be deeply flawed with high levels of assault, drug usage and countless complaints from inmates.
I’ve spent years investigating the role of Serco towards asylum seekers in Australia and globally and its record is defined by scandal, cost-cutting, obfuscation and abuse. On Christmas Island in 2011, I found a detention facility shrouded in secrecy with asylum seekers given little information about their fates. Serco exported its draconian policies from Britain and Australia was happy to accept. UK investigative journalist Phil Miller, by examining Serco staff public LinkedIn profiles, discovered that at least 10 Serco managers were shipped to Australia from the UK to manage the surging refugee flows. Many had a military background that shaped the often harsh response to asylum seekers.
In the US, privatised facilities for the most marginal are ubiquitous. Serco is hoping to get in on the action. In August, the Obama administration announced it was ending federal use of private prisons due to cost and safety concerns (new US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has reversed this decision). The move was arguably also helped by a number of high-profile media stories that revealed the unaccountability of the privatised system. However, Donald Trump’s victory will radically improve the financial situation of the private prison and immigration firms. Furthermore, Trump’s dream of a trillion-dollar infrastructure program across the US will end up costing citizens more in tolls and fees. Trump’s corporate friends will be pleased. Think of it as socialism for the billionaire class.
Opponents of privatisation in Australia have options to fight the state and federal government’s love affair with outsourcing. Copy the Australia Institute’s recent campaign to pressure Norway’s pension fund to divest from offshore detention profiteer Ferrovial and direct it towards Serco’s major shareholders. Tell your member of Parliament that agreeing to Serco’s demands will cost them a vote at the next election. Use shareholder activism to pressure Serco directors. Talk to Serco employees, through the various unions representing some of them, and urge action against poor pay and conditions.
The key message, towards Serco or any similar company, is that making money by abusing the marginalised will be bad for business and their public image.
*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in Jerusalem and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe