The exposure of suspect payments and allegations of bribery in the offshore detention program imperils Australia’s position as a trusted influence among island nations in the face of China’s expansion into the Pacific.
Home Truths, an investigative series by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes, found that Australia’s Home Affairs Department had overseen the payment of millions of taxpayer dollars to Pacific Island politicians through a chain of suspect contracts as it sought to maintain controversial offshore asylum seeker processing centres.
Financial data, internal emails and whistleblower testimony implicate Home Affairs’ lead contractors – Broadspectrum, Canstruct and Paladin – in suspected systemic misuse of taxpayer dollars in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The department was also shown to have maintained funding to two companies involved in the program despite repeated warnings by federal authorities their owners were allegedly corrupt and involved in suspected bribery or money laundering.
The payments have generated investigations by Australian Federal Police and financial crime agency Austrac but so far no charges have been laid.
Most of the suspect payments occurred while Home Affairs and its predecessor, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, were overseen by the Coalition and long-time minister Peter Dutton, but some have also happened on Labor’s watch. The current Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil is also facing questions as the department continued to pay firms even after corruption concerns had been raised. The contracts, quite clearly, warranted scrutiny by the department.
The Home Truths series has also found evidence that the Home Affairs Department failed to prevent criminal infiltration of Australia or the misuse of visas, or to manage the multibillion-dollar offshore processing system.
From the start, the Pacific Solution was always a contentious issue among politicians from both sides and many only came onboard with expectations that, at a bare minimum, both Labor and Coalition governments would ensure that the policy was conducted in a rigorous and fair manner untainted by the sort of manipulation that seems to have prevailed, indeed flourished.
Labor under Julia Gillard reopened the Nauru and Manus offshore processing camps in 2012. According to Transparency International’s Australian chief executive, Clancy Moore, it should have been “blatantly obvious” that both were corruption-prone jurisdictions. In fact, Australian Federal Police and intelligence services had gathered information as early as 2010 on corruption in Nauru at the time. On Manus, a former executive said when Paladin staff flagged corruption concerns with Home Affairs, they were told to avoid putting them in writing.
While the warning bells were ignored, politicians made promises to ensure corruption was kept clear from the offshore processing centres. Dutton, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo all spoke of how bringing Home Affairs together in one mega department would improve intelligence sharing and co-ordination. These events show precious little evidence that Home Affairs, at least in 2018, was achieving this goal.
The revelations in our series have geopolitical consequences: Australia risks losing moral leadership among Pacific nations at a time when our behaviour needs to be impeccable as we seek to counter China’s continuing thrust to insert itself through financial inducements into island nations, many of which have long looked to us for friendship, help and guidance.
The Greens have called for a royal commission. O’Neil acknowledged the situation required action. “These allegations are extremely serious and ought to be investigated by the appropriate authorities,” she said.
The problem, as our series defines, is that the “appropriate authorities” – those charged with overseeing the offshore processing system – have failed in their duty to properly investigate when legitimate concerns are raised. The examination of a money trail spanning a decade, several nations and diverse governments would be of necessity a long and complicated operation that only an independent agency such as the new National Anti-Corruption Commission, should undertake.
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