‘The challenge is to harness opposition’

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist, activist and author. He spoke to Red Flag’s Alexis Vassiley about his latest work, the recently published Profits of doom: how vulture capitalism is swallowing the world.

Tell us a bit about the book.

Profits of doom looks at the way in which vulture capitalism has infected the world. I went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Australia, especially Western Australia, to examine the ways in which detention centres, intelligence, resources and aid have increasingly been sold to the highest bidder – often the worst kind of human rights abusers.

This is bipartisan, but there’s very little public consent for it; whenever an opinion poll is taken about privatisation in these areas, the vast majority oppose it.

The idea behind the book is to challenge that. There is an alternative – there are people and groups around the world and Australia that are fighting it and think there can be a different way.

What has been the role of the Australian state, aid, and companies like Rio Tinto in Papua New Guinea?

One of the articles of faith in parts of the left is that aid is good – that Australia as a rich Western country has an obligation to help those less fortunate. In theory I support that. The problem is that too much of the $500 million in aid per year going to PNG – which since 1975 has been officially independent from Australia – actually does not stay there.

It’s the concept of boomerang aid – so much aid goes to private, for-profit Australian companies, and too little actually empowers local communities. When the foreign aid groups leave, there’s virtually nothing left. I met a lot of people in PNG who view Australian aid as a noose around their neck. It is too aligned with mining interests, yet there are countless examples, not least in Ok Tedi and Bougainville, where Australian mining companies have committed appalling human rights abuses.

Bougainville had a very profitable Rio Tinto mine, but with massive pollution spewing from the mine and human rights abuses. In 1988 the locals rose up, resulting in a brutal nine year civil war. The PNG government, the Australian government and Rio Tinto were on one side and the Bougainville Resistance Army on the other.

Remarkably the locals won but at great cost: 15-20,000 were killed. In 2013 the Australian government is paying white consultants to go over to Bougainville and help them draft legislation to allow the return of Rio Tinto.

This is problematic, as there has never been any compensation or clean-up. The Australian government’s agenda seems to be that the way you develop a poor society is through mining, and through backing Australian businesses, including those like Rio Tinto with an appalling human rights record. But there’s a great deal of resistance within Bougainville, within PNG and indeed in Australia to all of this.

You write of the massive profits made by the British multinational Serco out of the human misery inflicted on asylum seekers. What is the relationship between the government and Serco?

Serco’s record in Britain is unbelievably appalling. Successive government reports find human rights abuses against women and vulnerable children. Yet in 2009 the Rudd Labor government awarded it a $370 million contract to manage our detention centres. Fast forward to 2013 and it’s over $1.86 billion.

And the government is so desperate to cover up mistakes that both sides need the other. You speak to Serco, they say talk to the immigration department; you talk to the immigration department and they say talk to Serco. It’s a revolving door that reduces transparency, and that’s exactly what the government wants. It’s very difficult for journalists to access detention centres. Humanising asylum seekers, seeing their faces, hearing their stories means people might empathise with them. This is dangerous to a political system that requires people to be demonised.

Has your research for the book changed your political views?

I don’t know if it has fundamentally changed my views. But I suppose it did open my eyes to the fact that there is actually a massive groundswell of opposition to what is being done in our name across the world, with mining, with detention centres, with privatised war. The challenge is finding a way to harness that opposition into some kind of effective force to bring political change.

[More information about Antony’s book can be found at profitsofdoombook.com.]