Inside Story

Time’s up for this failed experiment

The creation of the Department of Home Affairs broke the rules of good government. Labor should commit to dismantling it

Paddy Gourley 20 February 2019 1774 words

Not just a machinery problem: home affairs minister Peter Dutton (left) and departmental secretary Mike Pezzullo, seen here during last August’s Five Country Ministerial meeting on the Gold Coast. Dave Hunt/AAP Image

The debate over the asylum seeker medical evacuation legislation is another reminder that no area of public policy has been more tainted by deceit and political mendacity than immigration. Those characteristics have shaped government policy in grievous ways, leaving us with a home affairs portfolio that breaches well-founded principles of public service organisation.

Prominent in the saga leading up to last week’s vote were prime minister Scott Morrison’s claim that he “stopped the boats” and secured Australia’s borders from asylum seekers. These claims have been systematically debunked by a former immigration department head, John Menadue, and two former deputy secretaries, Abul Rizvi and Peter Hughes, on Menadue’s website, Pearls and Irritations. Their rebuttal has been ignored by the mainstream media to the point where the journalist Peter Hartcher recently told his readers that “Scott Morrison was the immigration minister who restored control of Australia’s borders.”

The truth is somewhat different. In September 2011, Morrison, opposition leader Tony Abbott and the Greens blocked Labor legislation that would have implemented the “Malaysian Solution.” In all likelihood, those new laws would have significantly deterred asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous journey by boat. Without the legislation, 591 boats brought 39,070 people to Australia from October 2011 to July 2013. Tony Abbott has since expressed some regret about his role in blocking the plan; as far as I can tell, Scott Morrison hasn’t joined him.

In July 2013, prime minister Kevin Rudd announced that no people who arrived by boat would be settled in Australia. His government accelerated the assessment of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, quickly returning many of them home, and Indonesia slowed the arrival of people on its shores by introducing visa requirements. Immediately the number of boat arrivals fell dramatically. When the Coalition took government towards the end of September that year, 829 people had arrived by boat in that month compared with 4230 in July. In December, after he became immigration minister, Scott Morrison began turning boats back.

By knocking off the Malaysian Solution, the Coalition might well have allowed about 30,000 extra asylum seekers to arrive by boat. As Menadue has written, Morrison (and Abbott) didn’t want to stop the boats; they wanted to stop Labor from stopping the boats. Morrison then adopted Rudd’s policies and added boat turnbacks, and the supply of asylum seekers evaporated, as it almost certainly would have done without him. In large part, Morrison’s Operation Sovereign Borders was a PR stunt.

Nevertheless, asylum seekers are now arriving in greater numbers and at an increasing rate by the safer and cheaper means of the aeroplane. In the year ending June 2018, 27,931 people with visitor visas, the bona fides of which may be difficult to assess at points of departure to Australia, applied for protection visas, compared with the 18,365 boat arrivals who made such claims in 2012–13. The backlog of applications for protection visas at June 2018 was 177,140, and the backlog of appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has increased from 17,480 in 2016 to 52,491 in 2018.

In other words, Morrison and Peter Dutton have allowed the arrival of asylum seekers to spin out of control. By not clearing visa applications quickly, and so allowing people to remain for long periods without a long-term decision, they have provided additional incentives for people to try their luck as visitors. More asylum seekers are arriving by plane than did by boat, and delays in finalising their cases have provided an immense amount of work for those assisting them to get the visas they desire. As they wait in the queue, many seem to fall into the hands of unscrupulous Australian employers who sweat the devil out of them. It’s a considerable achievement and one diametrically at odds with the government’s excited rhetoric.

And it’s not as if that rhetoric is simply being used to hide the truth. It is also being used as a political lever to encourage fears about outsiders that make the effective settlement of the current high number of migrants more fraught.

Home affairs minister Peter Dutton uses alleged crimes by a few to tarnish whole groups of people. Morrison and finance minister Mathias Cormann rattle on about rapists and murderers in detention centres, as if most of the people in these hellholes are guilty of such crimes. The secretary of the home affairs department, Mike Pezzullo, plays up the threat of terrorists operating in a “dark universe” of “global contract hit men” and “fly-in assassins.” (Could Mr Pezzullo tells us how many “fly-in assassins” have plied their trade in Australia over the past five years?) Most recently, of course, having failed to get his way with laws on the medical evacuation of detainees in Nauru and Manus Island, the prime minister unconvincingly alleged that the boats will start arriving again, indulged in the kind of hyperbole that might just encourage some to give it a go, and then said that if they do he’d blame his political opponents.

The thinking behind this language not only has a political impact; it also has consequences for the institutions of government — and most notably for the home affairs portfolio, now not long past its first birthday.

The creation of this portfolio offended just about every generally accepted principle of machinery of government. Departments should be built around services to be performed rather than groups or individuals to be served. Like functions should be grouped together. Police, prosecutorial and intelligence gathering should be kept apart from related policy functions. And major responsibilities, like immigration, should have standalone departments.

But when ministers and Mike Pezzullo made their case for the department, they sidestepped those principles. “We are all one function,” said Pezzullo, “wielding state power to keep our fellow citizens safe and secure.” Such glib rhetoric exposes a pattern of empire-building at both political and bureaucratic levels.

The home affairs portfolio includes immigration, customs and multicultural affairs, and a range of security-related functions — including what its website weirdly refers to as “countering terrorism policy.” Organisationally, there are an astonishing ten deputy secretaries, some of them responsible for only one division. Deputies are supposed to relieve heads of departments from difficult spans of supervisory control; this department has used them to create that very problem.

Border Force contains customs and other functions, and its staff members are uniformed and in some cases armed. Notionally “operationally independent,” its budget and employing authorities are held by the secretary of the department. The Australian Federal Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC and ASIO are also in the portfolio.

In its short life, the home affairs portfolio has racked up an impressive number of administrative bungles, not just on Fijian citizenship and Interpol red notices, but on major matters exposed by the Audit Office. The main strike against it, however, is that it has allowed a range of unrelated functions to smother and corrupt the development and administration of immigration policy.

Immigration is about people; customs and excise administration is about goods. While immigration authorities need to exercise a quasi-policing role and be able to detain people who arrive in the country without their claims and fitness having been assessed, the government’s immigration function is fundamentally about bringing in people the country wants and needs, and helping them to adapt quickly. Immigration is not essentially about “keeping our fellow citizens safe and secure”; it’s about nation-building in many guises, including supporting the labour market, economic growth and prosperity.

Notwithstanding its infancy, it is time to call the creation of the home affairs portfolio for what it is — a failure that should be unpicked before it gets worse, regardless of who wins the forthcoming election.

The first step should be to create a Department of Immigration and Citizenship, headed by a senior cabinet minister. It would contain all immigration functions, including visa compliance, together with migrant settlement, language education and other migrant-support programs that have been dispersed to other departments.

Second, a Customs and Border Agency should be created to house most of the functions of the existing Border Force, perhaps with staff clothed in uniforms of a less martial shading. The agency would be well placed in the attorney-general’s portfolio.

Third, as political policy imperatives can skew police and intelligence functions, the AFP, ACIC, AUSTRAC and ASIO should be placed back in the attorney-general’s portfolio. Facts should inform policy, not be made to fit around it.

Fourth, remnant home affairs functions should be distributed to other ministers and their departments and agencies in accordance with generally accepted principles of machinery of government.

It’s unlikely the present government, either now or if it is re-elected, would have the slightest interest in such changes. It seems keen to keep immigration where it can be used relentlessly for political advantage. Scott Morrison’s recent disclosure of advice from officials about the reopening of detention facilities on Christmas Island following the medivac legislation is just the latest example of such impulses, which politicise and discredit agencies.

Labor, however, should reflect closely on the damage being done to immigration by having it in the home affairs portfolio. It should also think closely about the political dangers of maintaining an accident-prone organisation based on little more than empire-building by members of the old regime. A major reshuffle has risks, of course, but they are unlikely to be as great as the risks and costs of maintaining the present structure.

Fixing the machinery of government will not of itself restore sanity, decency and honesty to immigration policy and administration. Indeed, the parlous condition of that machinery is in many ways a symptom of the appalling way immigration is too often discussed. The most important thing is to lift the standards and quality of debate so it becomes an effective influence on policy instead of being used as a political meat grinder.

It follows that there would be value in establishing a royal commission on population policy and Australia’s immigration future, with the usual powers to require the production of documents and take evidence under oath. The commission should take into account regional geopolitical and population trends, including Australia’s labour market needs, and environmental considerations. It should recommend longer-term population policy and propose how immigration could support that policy consistent with broad economic goals.

At times immigration has been lucky enough to be based on genuine bipartisanship rather than the current rough consensus forced by political opportunism. Immigration needs to be renewed around a new consensus based on the public interest. A royal commission could help to do that in ways that seem at the moment to be beyond the will or ability of politicians left to their own devices. •