Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:55) 12 September 2012:
I rise to support the comments of my colleagues on this issue, and I congratulate senators Sarah Hanson-Young and Christine Milne for the extensive work that they have done on this quite extraordinary situation that Australia finds itself in at the moment. There have been so many aspects of it that have troubled us deeply, and I acknowledge there are so many people working very hard to bring some decency to how we treat refugees in Australia. Many aspects have been taken up by the Greens, and my colleagues have pointed out very clearly how far we have moved away from our international responsibilities. We have abandoned the rule of law and-something that is particularly disturbing and back in the news today-we have abandoned the principle that the minister is the guardian of unaccompanied children.
To read that the government is on the point of sending women and children, including unaccompanied minors, to Nauru and Manus Island marks another shocking day in this saga that the Labor government have made so much worse. They could have worked with the Greens when we came up with a humane position that honours our international obligations and gives assistance to people who have been through such terrible times. I have had the opportunity to visit Villawood Detention Centre, where I met with many people who have told me the stories of why they left their countries. In all the aspects of the debate, one that I find most disturbing is when senators from the other parties doubt why people leave their countries and make out that this is done for frivolous reasons-just coming to Australia to get a better life. The people from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran that I have met tell harrowing stories that would break your heart. Many of them have lost loved ones along the way or are now separated from their loved ones, and they do not know how long they will be apart.
A big part of this story is that we are handing over the running of these detention centres to Transfield Services. There is a big question mark over this company and how it operates; it really needs to have more of a spotlight put on to it. It is interesting that over the last decade this company's financial standing has not been really good, whereas Serco Australia, the division of the British multinational that runs most of Australia's current detention centres, reported a 45 per cent rise in net profits to $59 million last year. The revenue of that company almost doubled from $369 million $693 million-that is what Serco Australia has picked up. What do we know about Transfield Services? It is part of a sweep of companies and it is often hard to distinguish between them. There are Transfield Holdings, Transfield Services, Transfield Corporate, Transfield Pty Limited and numerous partnerships in a whole number of projects. What you find out when you start to look at them is that they have no experience in running detention centres-very little experience in running any facilities. The bulk of their work is in construction, so I thought it was necessary to look at aspects of some of the work that they have undertaken. The company have a bus project in Adelaide. They are that city's largest bus operator, and they were actually fined by the South Australian government when it was found that on the north-south route the buses were late nearly 50 per cent of the time. They were fined $120,000 because of that, and their performance was criticised by both the government and the opposition. This is a bit of theme that you start to see when you look at Transfield: their operations do not live up to the promises that are made or the contracts that they have signed. Sometimes they are a bit loose with their own paperwork. In New South Wales this company has been successful in winning contracts from successive Labor and coalition governments.
The company have a long history going back to the 1980s. The Perisher Skitube Joint Venture was established. Then the Sydney Harbour Tunnel contract was awarded, another joint venture. Interestingly, on the eve of the Labor government going out of office, when everybody knew that their days were over, the Keneally government awarded Transfield Services a $450 million contract to undertake facilities management and cleaning services in public schools, TAFE buildings and other government facilities from the Hunter to the north-west Sydney suburbs-that is a huge contract. In the late 1990s, Transfield was a senior partner in the very controversial $650 million Walsh Bay development in Sydney, which saw the privatisation of a considerable public space.
In 2010, we saw Transfield again run into some problems. They looked to expand their operations with the New South Wales government, applying to that government for a $350 million wind farm. To undertake that they had to put in with their submission some paperwork about their political donations, and they failed to notify details of those donations. There was a donation that they had made to go to a dinner with the then Labor Treasurer, Mr Eric Roozendaal, which they were totally allowed to do, but again there was a failure to disclose.
This weakness on paperwork becomes a bit of a theme, and where this becomes interesting is that this company has now adopted a policy not to make political donations. That is a good move, but I will come back to a few more details about how they are handling that aspect of their work. On their construction work, some of the very serious problems that occurred with the Lane Cove Tunnel need to be put on the record. Not only was this a financial basket case, but we also saw the partial collapse of an apartment block that occurred during the excavation that Transfield was involved in. There are many problems that come through when you look at the projects that they are involved in.
I want to move onto the issue about how this company has handled its political donations, which have been considerable over the years. What we have seen with this company-and you would hope it was more than a public relations exercise, as it is with some companies, although some companies do enforce it very thoroughly-is that in September 2010 they adopted their political involvement and support policy, which says:
Transfield Services does not make political donations ...
This is interesting, because I have just detailed some of the projects that they have been able to pick up over the years. Particularly in New South Wales, we see that considerable donations were made. From 1999 the total donations to all political parties comes in at more than $1 million; it is $1,126,546. The coalition were not so favoured by Transfield Services-all the Transfield companies. The coalition picked up $389,300, while Labor in all states since 1999 has picked up $737,246. The story becomes interesting when you look at the recent donations in light of the policy that this company has adopted. It has given more than $1 million to the political parties. But, when we get to September 2010, it says it is not giving political donations anymore and it has adopted a new policy. This information needs to be tracked through the various websites of the electoral commissions where you find that in the 2010-11 financial year Transfield disclosed making eight donations to the major parties. If you look further you find out that Transfield Services-the one that adopted this policy-gave two $5,000 donations to federal Labor in July and August 2010 and Transfield corporate services gave a $50,000 donation to the federal ALP division in August 2010, a total of $70,000 donated to the federal ALP last year. That is all okay according to the company's policy.
Transfield Services also disclosed giving three donations to the Liberal Party that year totalling $16,500. The last donation of $5,500 was listed as given to the New South Wales Liberal Party on 10 June 2011. This is some eight months after the company claimed it had ceased giving donations, in September 2010. Maybe this is a reflection of lax paperwork, but the theme becomes quite worrying. We find out about Transfield (1) that it has a lack of experience in anything that comes close to managing detention centres and (2) how it manages its own affairs.
It is interesting to look at the financial health of this company, because the company's shares have really not increased in value over the last decade, still sitting at around $2.10 per share. In this time shareholders have probably been wondering if their investment was worth it. At the same time, senior management have been looked after. In 2010-11, managing director Dr Goode received $2.8 million, an increase of $400,000 at a time when the return to shareholders went backwards. You become concerned about why the company has put up its hand for the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. Is the company looking to make profits out of vulnerable people? We know from experience with Serco-I gave the figures earlier, but they are worth repeating because they are quite staggering-that this company picked up a 45 per cent rise in net profits. I find it very troubling that Transfield Services, a private company, has been brought in although it has really no experience of running centres anywhere, let alone under such extraordinary conditions as would be faced on Nauru and Manus Island. It is very relevant to this debate to consider the motivation of this company.
Coming back to Dr Goode, who received an increase in his salary package, you would have to say that was an interesting reward considering that Transfield has been dropped from the ASX 100 Index. Dr Goode, at the end of this month, moves over to become a consultant to Transfield. The new head of Transfield Services will be Graeme Hunt. His background is interesting, particularly in light of this new extensive work that Transfield Services will be undertaking. Mr Hunt's background is in the mining industry; he spent 34 years with BHP. I put that on the record, because that is the relevant part of today's debate: who is running the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and their experience with handling people who are in a traumatised situation. That trauma is about to be added to as they are forced to move to another location with facilities that we have heard many speeches in parliament and people outside parliament calling highly inappropriate for people in this situation. So I would hope-I always try to look on the positive side-that out of this debate people become more aware of how far Australia has moved away from its obligations. Those obligations should have been met. The Greens put up very clear proposals to the Labor government. That is where we had the opportunity to work together, to come forward with real solutions-solutions which, if they had been put in place, would have reduced the number of people taking boats to come to Australia.
If we had taken more refugees into Australia and, in particular, had given more resources to the UNHCR, then that would have provided safer pathways for people to come to Australia. It would have been such an important shift in how we are managing refugees in this region and it would have been the way to spread the message that the government tells us it wants to spread through our region. But what we are seeing is that people are not getting the message 'Don't come to Australia by boat,' because the government's own policy has been failing since we debated this very issue in the parliament just a few weeks ago. The boats continue to come. Again, that is a message that I get time and time again when I speak to refugees at Villawood and other places. They always say they are not thinking about the situation they will face where they are about to arrive; they are thinking about what they have to escape from, how they have to protect their family and their loved ones or just their own personal safety because of the attacks, the abuse and the killings that are occurring in Sri Lanka against the Tamil community and what the Hazaras are facing in Afghanistan. That is why these people are taking these terribly dangerous trips.
The essence of the government's failure is shown in the fact that the boats are still coming. The fact that they have to expand the number of places to take the refugees who are coming is clear evidence that the government has got it so deeply wrong. We knew that the coalition had got it wrong, but the fact that Labor moved into Mr Abbott's territory is indeed very shocking.
Again, I would like to thank my colleagues in the Greens and the many community organisations that have worked so extensively on this issue. I know they will continue to add their voice for the need to take a humanitarian approach and to have respect for international law to be the foundation of how we handle refugee policy in Australia.