The 'huge hidden cost': dollars wasted on offshore detention

PAUL Stevenson wears many hats. Last week in Bundaberg, in the midst of a pre-election road trip as a senate candidate for the Australian Democrats, the phone rang.

He was called urgently to the island of Nauru.

"Years ago I might have driven through the night to Brisbane to be on the first flight over," he said. "As it is, I'll head down tomorrow."

The interruption is nothing new. In his 43-year career as a trauma psychologist, Mr Stevenson has helped people in the aftermath of disasters including the Port Arthur shootings, the Thredbo landslide and the Bali and Jakarta bombings - as well as the 2013 Bundaberg floods. Now he works at offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, debriefing those who counsel asylum seekers.

On the election trail he's driving a bus, Chippie, which he has fitted out himself as his Australian residence. "I spend half my life on Manus Island and Nauru, so it doesn't pay to have a home here," he says.

Why does he do it?

"I need the stimulation," he says. "I can't work fast or hard enough. It can get a bit chaotic, but I enjoy it. There is all kinds of opportunity in chaos."

The recent self-immolations by two inmates on Nauru have put Mr Stevenson, a board member of the United Nations Australia and national president of the Australian Association of Pyschologists, in high demand.

"When you put all (those roles) together, I'm putting a humanitarian front forward," he says. "These people are desperate.

"The story has to be told. For psychological ethics, for humanitarian reasons, for political and economic reasons."

With the budget handed down last week, most people would be aghast to know that the government spends $5 billion a year on offshore detention, he said.

"Thats $5 billion on keeping less than 2,000 people in detention."

Having seen the "hopeless exercise" for himself - "3,000 staff on Nauru who fly across every fortnight at $3,600 a trip, 150 vehicles, 6 mess kitchens each with a budget of a million dollars a month," Mr Stevenson says it is a "huge hidden cost".

"Nobody has made the economic argument," he says. "I'll be putting it to Malcolm Turnbull, if he agrees to meet with me."

ON THE ROAD: Democrats Candidate Paul Stevenson visits Bundaberg. Photo: Mike Knott / NewsMail
ON THE ROAD: Democrats Candidate Paul Stevenson visits Bundaberg. Photo: Mike Knott / NewsMail Mike Knott

LAST time Paul Stevenson was in Bundaberg, Alexandra Park looked very different.

"It's amazing to think - where we're standing we had water lapping, 30 feet up on the embankment. The crocodile and kangaroo enclosures over there were underwater."

The traumatologist volunteered as a counsellor for those devastated by the disaster.

But when it comes to natural disasters, "there is not the level of post traumatic stress disorder which you get in a man made disaster", Mr Stevenson says.

"People don't blame nature and they don't blame god - they get on with it. Over time, things rebuild and things get better again.

"I'm a great believer you should never aim to return things to the same as before - you should aim for something better.

"Looking around at Bundaberg today, the resilience of the people here has shone through."