Revealed: how Australia ‘dumped so much fucking money’ on asylum-seeker ad campaign

Exclusive: PR company paid $277,000 for three days’ work to persuade asylum seekers in Afghanistan and Pakistan not to travel by boat to Australia, email shows

The Australian government “dumped so much fucking money” on a company behind a taxpayer-funded campaign to deter asylum seekers arriving by boat that it made more than US$277,000 in profit for three days’ work, the Guardian can reveal.

The Singapore-based company Statt Consulting has been paid at least $15m by Australian taxpayers to target advertising inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, aimed at persuading would-be asylum seekers not to attempt to travel to Australia.

New tender documents show Statt was contracted to produce “printed publications” for just under $1m between February and June 2017 following the Australian government’s announcement of a US resettlement deal for refugees on Nauru and Manus Island.

An email seen by the Guardian raises questions about Statt’s profit margins from government contracts under Labor and the Coalition between 2011 and 2017. Government procurement rules state that “officials must gain value for money”, and set out rigorous standards to ensure this value has been met.

An email from October 2013 shows Rene Le Cussan, a director of Statt Consulting, discussed the withdrawal of company dividends for herself and other directors. Le Cussan wrote: “Since we are being honest about biases, mine are… 1, customs has dumped so much fucking money on us in the last few months that I feel it is the most likely time we are going to be able to take dividends. Including the fact that we just made an extra USD 277,000 profit yesterday for literally 3 days work.”

She continues, to list her second bias as “I’m in the middle of buying a house”.

That $277,000 sum was worth about $292,000 Australian dollars at the time.

Luke Falkner, a director of Statt, told the Guardian: “Given the nature of our work and our confidentiality obligations to our clients we are unable to comment on the specifics of our work. Our contracts on behalf of the Australian federal government were awarded through an open and competitive tendering process.

“They are subject to a rigorous compliance program which includes regular external reviews for compliance and delivery in accordance with highly specific objectives. In addition, our business is fully audited by an independent firm on an annual basis, with the most recent audit completed in February 2017.

“At all times our fees are completely transparent to our clients.”

The Australian customs agency approved more than 10 extensions of its contract with Statt, culminating in a single contract worth $15m, further documents released under freedom of information legislation show.

It justified this in part because Statt was originally selected in 2012 “as being able to provide best value for money following a competitive process for the conduct of offshore communication activities in the Middle East”.

Statt’s sophisticated messaging operation operated more like an intelligence operation than any conventional communication team. The organisation codenamed its Australian operation “Auspipe”, and an online portal was built so that the Australian government could directly access data gathered by Statt.

The company bought up TV and radio slots in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. It placed print ads in local magazines and news outlets, and produced graphic novels that were distributed across Afghanistan. It held interviews and seminars in Kabul and across the country to persuade community members not to attempt to arrive by boat in Australia.

In one instance Statt paid a subcontractor to deliver 20,000 100-page notebooks in Afghanistan as a “novelty item” with Australian government messaging on the front and back covers. “This will give the communication campaign a long last[ing] effect and a very visible face, can be distributed to high school and uni students in locations of interest,” a 2015 document states.

In another instance the company was contracted for an Iranian “media blitz” in local news outlets from October-November 2013 when Tony Abbott’s Coalition government introduced hardline immigration policies. Internal government documents show the company was given A$409,554 for part of this work to produce 30-second TV slots on prime time television in Iran.

Statt began receiving government contracts in 2011 from the Australian customs agency, which is now part of the Australian Border Force. It was initially asked to conduct research on migration and resettlement patterns. Documents released by customs under FOI show it was tasked for surveys in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with titles such as Project Joya, Project Intrepid and Project Whisper.

The company also picked up work from other governments, including those in Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Timing was on Statt’s side. It had placed itself in a pivotal position at a time when immigration was once again becoming a central issue in Australia. The Labor government led by Julia Gillard was acting on the recommendations of the 2012 expert panel and was seeking to implement the Malaysia solution, which involved Malaysia becoming a processing hub for asylum seekers seeking to enter Australia.

In November 2012 Statt was invited to provide a brief to customs outlining “the most effective messages and delivery methods” for a broad messaging program across the Middle East. A short time later it was granted the contract.

The work involved buying up media slots in countries across the Middle East, but also more direct campaigns. Consultations with hundreds of community members in Afghanistan would be held to continue the government’s efforts to deter asylum seekers. Refreshments would be served in parts of Afghanistan – all funded by Australia – where Statt’s subcontractors would convene community meetings.

Then the company was the beneficiary of Kevin Rudd’s second Labor government, which instituted the “no advantage” policy for asylum seekers who arrive by boat and expanded the offshore detention regime on Nauru and Manus Island after a series of variations.

Documents suggest Australia’s management of the contract with Statt was patchy at times. In January 2013 an email from Le Cussan queries the contracting arrangements with customs, with their contract set to expire that week.

Julian Warner, the director of customs’ national intelligence collection and policy division, responded: “It is unlikely we will have something on paper for tomorrow – the Australia day holiday has seen people on leave. The extension contract will need to list the services which have been the subject of recent emails. At this time next week for a contract is more likely.”

The officer then agreed to Statt continuing to produce content at a cost of $25,000 without a formal contract.

When Tony Abbott came to power in September 2013, he implemented an even more aggressive policy of deterrence for asylum seekers, including what is known as Operation Sovereign Borders. This military-like force introduced turn back operations for asylum seeker vessels at sea. It also led to a greater focus on messaging for migrant communities at their source.

A further increase in their contract in January 2014 said that “strategic delivery of outreach and messaging services” was “integral to OSB [Operation Sovereign Borders’] objective of defeating people smuggling and achieving a substantial and sustained reduction in irregular maritime ventures in Australia”.

Ordinarily there are strict requirement for holding tenders under Commonwealth Procurement Rules. But customs could be exempted from some of these rules because the services to be delivered were advertising campaigns “that will be sourced and consumed outside Australian territory”. With each extension customs suggested it would imminently be undertaking an open tender process; but across the length of time covered by the documents this did not happen.

A spokesman for customs said a panel process was now in place for these offshore communications activities.

“The department has no comment on alleged email communication from an external organisation. Statt Consulting was engaged by the former Australian Customs and Border Protection Service via a direct procurement arrangement, consistent with commonwealth procurement guidelines.

“In 2014, the joint agency task force Operation Sovereign Borders established a panel of providers to deliver offshore anti-people smuggling public information campaigns. Since this time, the joint agency task force has referred to this panel when seeking to procure services for its offshore anti-people smuggling communication activities. Statt Consulting is now engaged by the department via this panel arrangement.”

Tony Abbott, then prime minister, and Scott Morrison, then minister for immigration and border protection, at a press conference about Operation Sovereign Borders in June 2014.
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Tony Abbott, then prime minister, and Scott Morrison, then minister for immigration and border protection, at a press conference about Operation Sovereign Borders in June 2014. Photograph: Stefan Postles/AAP

While other companies have now been asked to provide services, Statt remains a key player. Following a deal with the US to take refugees from Australia’s detention centre in Nauru, the Australian government ramped up the ad campaign in Afghanistan once again, including graphic novels, radio and TV spots.

New tender documents show that Statt has been contracted to produce “printed publications” for just under $1m from February to June 2017.

A radio script to be distributed and produced in relation to some of their recent work for Australia surrounding the US resettlement deal states: “The Australian government’s arrangement with the United States of America to resettle some refugees is a one-off solution that is not available to new arrivals.”

A spokesman for the immigration department said: “Strategic communication is a cornerstone of Australia’s anti-people smuggling operations and strategy, and the success of Operation Sovereign Borders in significantly reducing the number of illegal maritime ventures to Australia has in part been due to the intensive, wide-reaching, high-frequency anti-people smuggling campaign.”

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