An old friend of mine used to say: “Mate, it’s only a rort if you’re not in on it!” This thought came to mind today when I was reading the amazing story in the Australian Financial Review on the $423 million worth of contracts for providing services to the refugees on Manus Island.

The beneficiary of this astonishing largesse is a little-known company called Paladin Group, which apparently had its head office in a shack on Kangaroo Island 

Older readers will relish the irony of the name Paladin. An iconic 1950-60s American Old West TV show called ‘Have Gun - Will Travel’ featured a central character played by Richard Boone. We never knew his real name. He was simply known as Paladin. His business card had a chess knight symbol with the words “Have Gun - Will Travel”. He worked out of a swank hotel in old San Francisco and operated as a “gentleman gunslinger” for hire 

Younger readers will recognise Paladin as one of the “character classes” from the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons – holy knights crusading in the name of good.

Both these incarnations derive from the original paladins, reputed to be warrior knights famed for their heroic and chivalrous deeds around the time of Charlemagne. They were probably mythical representations.

And that brings us back to Manus Island and the Paladin Group, a company itself shrouded in mystery, which the AFR called “little more than a series of post boxes at registered offices in Singapore and Hong Kong and that beach shack down a dirt road on Kangaroo Island in South Australia” 

Singapore-based Paladin Holdings Pte Ltd, the ultimate beneficiary of the government contracts apparently has registered capital of $50,000. And almost nothing is known of its principals, 38-year-old former soldier Craig Thrupp, and his partner, Ian Stewart. They have no biographies on the company’s website and apparently no social media profiles.

Yet, in early 2017, when Transfield (by then known as Broadspectrum) stepped away from its refugee processing contracts on Nauru and Manus, after intense pressure from activists, Paladin Group won a “limited tender” from the Department of Home Affairs to be appointed the main service provider on Manus.

Paladin’s previous experience seems to have been providing security and cleaning services for the 60-person respite centre on Manus Island. Mind you that contract was still worth an amazing $15 million according to the AFR!

Many PNG operators are angry at the Home Affairs tender process. When they heard that Broadspectrum was relinquishing its contracts, they eagerly awaited the announcement of an open tender. Home Affairs decided on a “limited tender” process that cut them out.

The Minister responsible, Peter Dutton, has been on the back pedal all week, saying effectively that it’s hard to find a company willing to take on the contract.

This coming week’s Senate Estimates should provide some fireworks. And this story could play a major role in the upcoming federal Election.