SYDNEY: Australian officials on Monday defended awarding lucrative contracts to an obscure firm with a beach shack as its registered office, saying they were in a hurry to find a company to provide services at Pacific refugee camps.
The Singapore-registered Paladin Holdings was awarded more than Aus$420 million (US$300 million) — about Aus$17 million a month — in contracts to provide security at three transition centres for refugees on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The operations are part of Canberra’s harsh policy of processing asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat at remote offshore Pacific camps, where hundreds of refugees have been stranded for five years.
But questions have been raised about why Paladin was given the contracts after local media reported the firm had little experience, was thinly capitalised and had ties to a senior PNG politician.
The Australian Financial Review said Paladin’s registered office in Australia was a beach shack on Kangaroo Island, a sanctuary for native wildlife off the coast of South Australia.
After the reports surfaced last week, Paladin changed its registered address to an office in Canberra, the newspaper said Monday.
Home Affairs officials grilled about the issue at parliamentary hearings Monday said they resorted to a closed tender — only approaching one firm to bid — as PNG suddenly pulled out in mid-2017 from plans to manage the process.
With the Australian-run camp due to close by end-October 2017 after a PNG court ruled it was unconstitutional, the officials said they had to act quickly to find a company to manage three replacement transition centres.
Paladin emerged as the main contender as it served as a subcontractor to previous PNG detention service providers, the officials said.
They added that other firms which previously bid for contracts indicated there was too much “noise” over running Canberra’s asylum offshore detention facilities.
“We were dealing with an urgent situation,” Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo told the parliamentary committee.
Companies involved in managing the contentious camps, including Spanish construction giant Ferrovial, had been under pressure from human rights campaigners to divest from the projects amid reports of abuse and poor conditions.
Ferrovial and other service providers later said they would not tender for future contracts in the wake of the criticism.
Rights activists and refugees have since also complained about conditions in the replacement transition centres.
Attorney-General Christian Porter on Sunday defended the contracts but said reports of links between Paladin and the Manus-based family of a senior PNG politician would “have to be investigated thoroughly”.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, whose portfolio encompasses the offshore detention regime, last week distanced himself from the tender process, saying it was managed by lower-level officials.
PNG Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas said in a statement that his country had no involvement with the awarding of the contracts.