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Escaping accountability: a case of Australia’s asylum seeker policy

Ken McPhail (Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)
Robert Ochoki Nyamori (School of Business and Public Management, KCA University, Nairobi, Kenya)
Savitri Taylor (Law School, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 15 August 2016




The purpose of this paper is to address two questions: first, what contracts, instruments and accounting activities constitute Australia’s offshore asylum seeker processing policy in practice? Second, how are notions of legitimacy and accountability mediated through the network constituted by this policy?


The paper is located in the critical interpretivist approach to accounting research. It is based on an exhaustive documentary analysis. Policy documents, contract documents, records of parliamentary inquiries (Hansard) and legislation were analysed drawing on a network policy perspective.


The paper finds that the Australian Government has sought to escape its accountability obligations by employing a range of approaches. The first of these approaches is the construction of a network involving foreign states, private corporations and non-government organizations. The second is through a watered down accountability regime and refusal to be accountable for the day-to-day life of asylum seekers in offshore processing centres through a play with the meaning of “effective control”. Yet while the policy network seems designed to create accountability gaps, the requirement within the network to remain financially accountable undermines the governments claims not to be responsible for the conditions in the detention camps.

Research limitations/implications

The paper focuses largely on the period starting from when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister to the death in Papua New Guinea of asylum seeker Reza Barati on 17 February 2014. Earlier periods are beyond the scope of this paper.

Practical implications

The paper will result in the identification of deficiencies inhuman rights accountability for extra-territorialized and privatised immigration detention and may contribute towards the formulation of effective policy recommendations to overcome such deficiencies. The paper also provides empirical data on, and academic understanding of, immigration detention outsourcing and offshoring.

Social implications

The paper will inform debate regarding treatment of unauthorized maritime arrivals and asylum seekers generally.


The paper provides the first detailed and full understanding of the way Australia’s offshore asylum seeker processing policy is practiced. The paper also provides an empirical analysis of the way national policy and its associated accountability mechanisms emerge in response to the competing legitimacy claims of the international community and national electorate.



The authors thank the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law for its research funding, Ms Brynna Rafferty-Brown for her research assistance, and participants at the QUT staff seminar for useful feedback.


McPhail, K., Nyamori, R.O. and Taylor, S. (2016), "Escaping accountability: a case of Australia’s asylum seeker policy", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 29 No. 6, pp. 947-984.



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Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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