Au pair visa saga shows the rot runs deep

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Last January, the ABC came into possession of sensitive files that were in a cabinet mislaid in a second-hand shop. They revealed the inner workings of federal government, including the personal interests that override departmental advice, and the active diminution of lawful norms under the catch-all thrust of 'national security'.

Peter DuttonIn particular, then-immigration minister Scott Morrison was found to have sanctioned 'mitigation strategies' to avoid providing permanent protection for an estimated 1700 asylum seekers with positive determinations at primary and review stages. Some 70 people with no outstanding checks were described as 'highest risk of requiring a permanent grant'. One of the strategies outlined in the documents was to get ASIO to delay security checks so that protection claims would miss deadlines.

This episode came to mind as reports escalate about Peter Dutton's intervention as then-immigration minister in at least three cases involving foreign au pairs. In the document granting a tourist visa to a French woman — whom his own department had deemed 'high risk' due to previous issues involving work restrictions — Dutton wrote that the decision was 'a discretionary and humanitarian act to an individual with ongoing needs, (and that) it is in the interests of Australia as a humane and generous society'.

Both ex-ministers have presided over preventable deaths, self-harm and suicides in offshore detention. At least 12 cases involving urgent medical care for children in Nauru had to be brought to court after being blocked by the government. An army veteran has had to fight for his Afghan interpreter to be brought to Australia. The whistleblower Chelsea Manning looks set to be banned from speaking here.

The differences are not just stark. In light of recent reports that a family of Liberal Party donors are associated with at least one ministerial intervention, they add dimension to the arbitrary character of our immigration system. It is arbitrariness that has always rendered it unjust.

Seaborne refugees experience this regime as a series of moving posts, hurdles and deadlines that drag for years. It seems that for others, this arbitrariness is more about who you know. For an au pair detained at Brisbane airport, it took a phone call to be reissued a visa within hours. The fact that the department then spent at least $10,000 fighting an FOI case on such decisions is acutely relevant.

Some reckoning ought to be due. The thing is, it can be difficult to identify, punish and curtail abuse of power in the very halls where it is exercised.

 

"How unethical would a department have to be, to be made to bend for those holding the right phone numbers, while eliding obligations under law to those who have earned protection?"

 

The immigration portfolio is usually handed to the person with the right 'whatever it takes' attitude. This has been bolstered by a trajectory of ever-expanding powers. If Morrison and Dutton had felt it was in their ambit to make arbitrary decisions against those in need of protection and for those with the right connections, they were enabled by the political class.

It would be a mistake to think that anyone else would be impervious to temptation and the obligations wrought from political debt. These are welded onto our democratic structures.

Still there are questions worth asking. How incompetent would a minister have to be to dub as 'humanitarian' the provision of a tourist visa for a so-called au pair, then spend taxpayer money to keep it secret and somewhat failing?

How unethical would a department have to be, to be made to bend for those holding the right phone numbers, while eliding obligations under law to those who have earned protection?

And how indifferent would we have to be, to allow ourselves to continue to be governed like this? Perhaps we couldn't care less about what happens to an au pair or the person who let her in. But to know that there is rot in the ceiling — embodied in relationships of mutual benefit between those in office and those with money — and still be fine retiring to bed underneath, does not really bode well for anyone.

 

 

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Peter Dutton

 

 

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Existing comments

Unethical behaviour should always be questioned. Having said that, no one can occupy the moral high ground. What we can do is keep holding our political leaders to account and we can do that by unfettered public discussion and at the ballot box. It seems that Mr Dutton has been approached on a personal basis on this matter and it is galling that asylum seekers are left out in the cold. Papering over the rot is not the way to go. We need a proper and compassionate fix.
Pam | 30 August 2018


The idea that Dutton made his au-pair decision on humanitarian grounds makes me absolutely sick. Cynical, untruthful, self-serving, just to start. And to whom is he accountable? If it's not the Prime Minister we need a new PM. Again...
Joan Seymour | 30 August 2018


Thanks Fatima for your efforts to keep our appalling immigration decisions on the agenda. How much longer do we have to wait until we get Government leaders with compassion and courage to treat people fairly, justly and humanely.
Annette | 31 August 2018


Thank you Fatima. Another great analysis of the way the current government operates. On one hand, it keeps valid asylum seekers cooped up in detention centres that are similar to concentration camps and several have died because of suicide or lack of timely medical intervention. Then on the other, former immigration minister Peter Dutton tried to justify his intervention in one of three cases involving foreign au pairs as 'a discretionary and humanitarian act to an individual with ongoing needs, (and that) it is in the interests of Australia as a humane and generous society'. Would this have had something to do with the fact that this person was working for a major donor to the "Liberal" Party? The ad hoc nature of decision-making by this government and its cruelty to the true asylum seekers is giving Australia the image of being a moral leper colony!
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 31 August 2018


Thank you Fatima. My feeling is that this has been going on for years although some ministers have been notable exceptions and pursued their tasks diligently. Now, without a higher set of values - read a human rights framework - to ascribe to, Australia is doomed to endemic corruption and associated impunity as well as a self centred, xenophobic pre-occupation with its sovereignty. The strength of a society and its culture only comes with an openness to the other, enacted through hospitality, which has its limits, but is an outward-focussed impulse. We need this corrective badly.
davidhsj | 31 August 2018


Thanks Fatima! What troubles me most is the cruel treatment of asylum seekers by both the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition, both of whom have played a part in this ongoing cruelty. There are even over 100 children languishing on Nauru, with depression and self harm now the norm. Is this the Australia we want? If not, I suggest you vote GREEN at the next election.
Grant Allen | 31 August 2018


Fatima. I just listened to your points on the Drum. Good work. i hope they have you as a guest more often. AO
AO | 31 August 2018


Systems are imperfect through inefficiency and, possibly, partiality. No excuses should be made for imperfection although one might ask if as much bother should be expended towards an imperfection that might encourage a trickle as one that might stimulate a flood.
Roy Chen Yee | 01 September 2018


I think that you miss the point Roy. We live in what is supposed to be a democracy where decisions are made transparently and according to law, not in secret by executive fiat. Where discretion is to be exercised, it's better that it be done openly by a magistrate or judge after a public hearing, not in an arbitrary way by a politician part of whose job is to solicit donations for her/his party. Or, for that matter, by a border force official at the pointy end playing God. What sort of a law is it that gives such an official at the border the power to overturn a visa that has been issued after due consideration and process?
Ginger Meggs | 04 September 2018


An ABC report today – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-10/veterans-fight-peter-dutton-over-visas-for-afghan-interpreters/10221716 - provides an interesting context on Ministerial intervention, which in the au pair cases has been anything but transparent in terms of character and other factors the Minister took into consideration in overriding the Department’s decision. Perhaps if the interpreters had prominent backing from Liberal Party donors the story might have been different, a point made in the report. Who knows, because Ministerial intervention is not transparent?
Brett | 10 September 2018


Another interesting story from the ABC - http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-19/french-couple-gutted-to-be-deported-after-15-years-in-australia/10281010 . Perhaps if Mr Pigot and Ms Mendy were au pairs or significant donors to a certain political party the story might have had a different outcome. We will never know because Ministerial intervention is not transparent.
Brett | 20 September 2018


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