13/01/2014 - 21:44

Spotlight on Serco following escape

13/01/2014 - 21:44


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Taxpayers are entitled to know exactly what went wrong when two prisoners escaped from Geraldton Airport under Serco's watch.

Expect the unions and the Labor Party to be hot on Serco's case again if the company fails to provide answers over the escape of two prisoners in Geraldton.

Serco Asia-Pacific chief executive Mark Irwin's publicly announced visit to Perth this week to respond to questions about the high profile escapes of two prisoners at Geraldton Airport is important for two reasons.

The first is that taxpayers, who pay Serco handsomely to be responsible for the secure transporting of prisoners, are entitled to know exactly what happened, including what went wrong.

The second is that Mr Irwin will provide a rare human face for Serco, which has a growing presence in delivering services in government-owned institutions that have previously been staffed by public servants.

Serco was spawned out of the once high profile Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It formed a British subsidiary more than 80 years ago to support Britain's growing cinema industry, and later branched out to win a contract for the Royal Air Force.

The company's profile in WA jumped in 2006 when it won the tender to operate Acacia prison at Wooroloo. Acacia had been built during Richard Court's government to be a privately operated jail. The idea was to introduce an alternative style of prison administration to help assess which system operated more efficiently, public or private.

Since then Serco's name has rarely been out of the public spotlight, partly due to its opponents within the union movement and the Labor Party, and its own inept public relations.

I recall attempting to make contact with the company in my days as an ABC television news reporter after some problem with prison administration. Usually some words were provided for publication, rarely would a spokesman be available for a television interview.

Today Serco is not only involved in contracts with the Department of Corrective Services valued at more than $600 million. It also won the prized tender to provide management and support services for the new Fiona Stanley Hospital at Murdoch, valued at $4.3 billion. That's big money.

Public sector unions are strongly opposed to the contracting out of work at taxpayer funded institutions to companies like Serco. While targeting the profit motive -  should companies be making money out of taxpayer funded services? - it also gives them less bargaining power over pay and conditions. That's why any problem, big or small, will be played up.

And the Geraldton escape was a big problem.

Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis had no alternative but to demand answers. And that's what Mr Irwin had better be able to provide this week.

If he can't, expect the unions and the Labor Party to be hot on the case - again.


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