The good ol’ generous Australian taxpayer again

ALMOST $200,000 a week is being spent on charter flights to ferry asylum seekers and federal staff to and from Christmas Island to ease pressure on the overcrowded off-shore detention centre.

New figures on the cost of the Government’s border protection policy reveal it has been forced to double the number of charter flights on and off the island this year, to an average of one every five days. The cost of the aircraft has also more than trebled in just 10 months to $8.2 million, or $134,000 a flight. And it is forecast to keep rising, with the Government admitting it will cost an extra $8.1 million next year.

According to the latest figures – detailing the cost of flying asylum seekers from the island to 12 locations on the mainland, including Sydney – in the 10 months to April 30, 62 aircraft were chartered to carry 6500 people to and from Christmas Island. In the 2008-09 financial year 32 charter flights carrying 2500 people to and from the island cost $2.7 million – an average of $84,000 a flight.

But the latest figures do not include the recent transfer of 30 Sri Lankan, Afghan and Iranian family groups – 86 asylum seekers in total – from the island to the former mining camp in Leonora, in Western Australia. They also do not include the 189 single Afghan males who were flown from the island on two charter flights to the Curtin Airbase in the remote West Kimberley region of WA at the weekend, costing more than $250,000.

The cost blowout is expected to continue, with the Government also confirming at the weekend it was looking for more sites to house asylum seekers on the mainland, to cope with overcrowded facilities on Christmas Island.

There are already at least 11 detention centres, residential housing or transit accommodation facilities on the mainland at various sites including Sydney, Perth, remote Western Australia, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin and outback South Australia.

At a Senate Estimates hearing less than three weeks ago the Federal Opposition claimed the operating costs at Christmas Island were “increasing markedly”.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans was sarcastic in his response. “You have discovered [an] awful truth, which is that as the number of detained [sic] on Christmas Island increases the cost of running Christmas Island increases,” Senator Evans told the committee. “You have got us; we confess; the costs have increased. I know it is amazing, but the costs have increased . . .”

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was spending more time “running his own airline than stopping the boats”.