Will Serco be continually rewarded for failure?

The ongoing chaos at Christmas Island – with refugees, guards and citizens all being led astray by the Australian government and Serco – is a blight on our conscience. We treat asylum seekers like animals, lock them up indefinitely, and wonder why their resist? As they should.

Last night Immigration Minister Chris Bowen appeared on ABC TV Lateline to answer questions about the current situation and he was given a roasting. Many, many questions from interviewer Ali Moore on Serco, its incompetence and the government’s reliance on a company that clearly can’t handle the situation.

My partner joked that Serco was being so damned in the media at the moment that maybe the government would dump them as soon as contractually possible. But who would replace them? Just another faceless security multinational. These services should be in public hands:

ALI MOORE: Are you aware that the former manager of the centre reportedly writing to his boss five months ago and saying they’re 15 people short on a daily basis and even if they had a full complement they’d be struggling?

CHRIS BOWEN: Yes, I am aware of the reporting of that letter and that’s something the inquiry will be examining closely, along with all sorts of investigations as to not only the staffing of Serco, but the preparedness of Serco, the intelligence reports as to possible disturbances, how they were managed et cetera. They are all very legitimate issues for the independent arms-length inquiry I’ve set up.

ALI MOORE: When do you hand control back to Serco, not until the end of that inquiry?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, it’ll happen before then. Control will be handed back to Serco when the Australian Federal Police, my department and Serco are satisfied that is appropriate. The AFP remains in control of the centre and, of course, they are working closely with Serco.

The AFP are the appropriate people with the training, resources and skills to manage what was a very difficult, tense and violent situation in the course of last week. The situation, of course, now is much calmer. The AFP will hand back over to Serco when it’s felt appropriate that’s the safe and responsible thing to do.

ALI MOORE: But at the same time if you don’t know what went wrong with Serco, you’re not sure about the staffing issues, you’ve put in an investigation to try to find out. Is it wise to give them control when you don’t actually know what went wrong?

CHRIS BOWEN: I don’t think you should pre-empt the inquiry. There’s a premise to your question that for some reason we should be assuming that there are management failures on Serco’s behalf. I’m not pre-empting the inquiry.

Serco manages a range of detention centres across the country and a range of facilities for a range of government and the private sector. I’m not pre-empting whether there was anything that Serco could or should have done, but they manage all our detention centres and they manage most of them without incident and I’m not going to criticise Serco before I’ve seen the results of that independent review.

If there’s criticism of Serco or my department I’m more than happy to accept it and make it, but I’m not going to pre-empt an independent arms-length inquiry.

ALI MOORE: Have they got a timeframe for reporting?

CHRIS BOWEN: Yes, they’ll report to me by the middle of the year.

ALI MOORE: By the middle of the year? So there’s a fundamental problem, you could have that problem in place for months?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, this was a major incident. It requires significant investigation. These are two very respected and experienced former public servants. I think you could appropriately criticise me if I didn’t give them enough time to conduct that inquiry.

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