Why I quit the department

The Palmer Report into the Cornelia Rau affair has been released. In a key passage, Palmer states that the Immigration Department failed to manage the mandatory detention policy ‘in a way that is firm and fair and respects human dignity’. On the heels of Palmer, a Senate inquiry into the administration and management of the Migration Act has been announced. It will dissect the organisational culture of the Immigration Department more generally; it is likely to uncover further departmental failures to respect human rights and dignity. And although other senior managers may follow former departmental secretary Bill Farmer in departing, the minister who presided over, and encouraged, that culture is unlikely to be censured.

I once worked in the Immigration Department, and while I’m not surprised that events such as the Rau affair have come to pass, I also know that they were not inevitable. Public service departments are not static, like all organisations, their ethos develops and changes over time. The Immigration Department was not always the hard-bitten agent of the politics of race that the Palmer Report implies. I saw, from the inside, the beginnings of its transformation in 1996, and know that, had political intent been otherwise, we would not now have the department we do.

My first encounter with the department was in 1993 when I became a Graduate Administrative Assistant in the newly formed Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT). It was my first full-time job, and my first real meeting with the Australian Public Service (APS).

On the morning of my first day a man in a brown pullover sidled up to my desk. I was wearing my only suit (navy blue, double-breasted, punctuated by a paisley tie) and trying to unlock the mysteries of file management, when he quietly, solemnly, asked, ‘Are you interested in joining the Tea and Coffee Club?’ The way he said this made it sound vaguely illegal, and attractive. The first notion that flickered in my mind was the Dead Poets Society. Maybe the Tea and Coffee Club was a loose collective of misfits who defied insensitive officialdom to meet and blind-taste Arabica blends from the Caribbean, or debate the merits of Sri Lankan versus Indian leaf, before reciting, ‘The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold …’ Sadly, the reality was less Byronic and more prosaic—more Public Service. The RRT wouldn’t buy tea and coffee for its staff. If you wanted a hot beverage, you had to chip in. So, in I chipped. And my slow acculturation into the APS began.

Executive tribunals like to bite the hands that feed them, and in this respect the RRT was an executive tribunal to its core. Set up to review the merits of the Immigration Department’s ‘primary’ refugee status decisions, it was supposed to be an independent and intelligent appeals body. In 1993, powered by the energy that comes when a group of people, even public servants, are creating something new, this was very nearly the case. Regularly, inevitably, the tribunal would make decisions that ran counter to the department’s sensibility. Who should be considered a refugee? A Tamil male from Colombo? Maybe. A Chinese homosexual from Shanghai? Possibly. A political activist from Nigeria? Definitely. A Kazakhstani woman escaping severe marital abuse? Why not?

I found this all fascinating. How to correctly apply the United Nations Convention on Refugee Status? How to determine, should they return to their country of origin, whether someone had a reasonable fear of persecution on the basis of their race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership of a social group? If persecution equates with ‘serious harm’, then what is ‘serious harm’? If ‘reasonable fear’ equates with a ‘real chance’ of persecution occurring, then what is a ‘real chance’? And what the hell is a social group?

In 1994, I left the RRT and took up my second full-time job. I joined the department. I became a case officer in the Onshore Refugee Program, Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (now the Department of Immigration and Indigenous Affairs). One of a large group of new inductees to the Sydney branch, I would now be making refugee-status decisions of my own. I had just turned 26. Young, arrogant, and convinced that I was clever and compassionate—a genuine refugee would have no reason to fear me—I had few qualms about sitting in judgment on my fellow human beings.

Looking back, I wonder at my callowness then. Think for a moment, I would like to say to my younger self, think of what it means to sit in judgment. To know that your decision, written up in a rational, open-plan office, the muted tones of the carpet and partitions reflected in the language of the decision—
moderate, reasonable, based on the law of the land—will fundamentally alter the progress of another person’s life. You will indelibly mark that person’s story. Think of the responsibility that comes with that. Well, I can’t say that I did. Too young. Too arrogant. And maybe too scared.

The way the program operated was to group case officers into teams of 11 or 12. Each team had a cabinet filled with hundreds of case files, some of which had just been received, some six or seven years old. Team members would then discuss with the team leader the caseload mix they would like—old and new, Asian, Pacific Islander, South American, African, Middle Eastern or European—and the team leader would go to the cabinet, pull out suitable files and hand them over. As old files were resolved, new files came in, brought up from their initial processing by the secretariat from the floor below. It was Fordism with a New Managerialist veneer; Kafka without the Mitteleuropa gloom.

I liked the orderliness of it, the process. I liked interviewing applicants, listening to their stories, assuring them that their claims would be properly, seriously considered. I liked solving the riddle of applying the law to the facts of a case. I believed I was doing a good job, and I believed it was a job worth doing. I had no problem with the Australian Government assessing whether people were entitled to remain in the country, so long as that assessment was in accord with international law and was carried out in a humane manner. I could see there was an inherent contradiction in this—all judgment is, to some extent, inhumane—but, if Sir Anthony Mason, Chief Justice of the High Court, could live with that contradiction, so could I.

There was no Tea and Coffee Club in the Onshore Refugee Program. In fact, there seemed to be a decided lack of public service culture among my teammates, many of whom had come from outside the APS. Certainly, they didn’t fit the mould of dry, Anglo-Saxon apparatchiks. Deborah and her parents were post-war Jewish refugees. Melee’s family was from Samoa. Maria had escaped Poland in 1988. John was Estonian and a photographer. Kate was Dutch and went to too many rave parties. Michael had been brought up in the Australian Communist Party and still had nightmares about their youth groups. Marissa’s partner was a mad artist. Richard harboured a not-so-secret ambition to be a novelist ... well, maybe that made him an archetypal public servant, but my point, I think, is clear. And as a team we got along, we debated refugee law, we exchanged country information and, on the whole, although not always, we made well-considered decisions.

Not without some justification, we saw ourselves as the ‘good’ decision-makers. Departmental primary decision-makers were not, are still not I would venture, all of the same standard. Nor are Refugee Review Tribunal members; nor, arguably, Federal Court and High Court judges. That is the reality of any justice or decision-making system. It is fallible, it is human. And for all of the day-to-day amity among the refugee program case officers, for all the organised lunches, and after-work functions, and stupid-funny skits that were put on for the office Christmas party—all the bonhomie that a relatively healthy workplace produces—this question of fallibility lurked always within us. How could you be absolutely sure you got it right? Did you have all the information? Did you truly understand the law? How could you be sure you were saying ‘No’ to the right person?

The ever-present uncertainty surrounding refugee-status decisions, and their case-by-case nature, produced a somewhat confused management culture in the Sydney office. The senior managers were career public servants who had worked, in several cases, for 40 years in the department and could read subtle movements in the hierarchy the way hyenas can nose out a carcass on the savannah. They didn’t understand refugee decision-making though: too muddy, too ambiguous. Their experience had been in applying clear procedures to narrowly defined categories such as business migration, family reunions and spousal visas. Deciding on asylum seekers required interpreting UN Conventions, Federal Court and High Court cases, and dissertations by academics who stubbornly refused to provide easy-to-tick boxes. It was all too judicial. They were trained to manage in a command-control manner, yet were placed in charge of a group who were largely autonomous and judge-like in their decision-making. There was, in effect, nothing for them to do apart from keep an eye on the budget and wait for retirement … which they duly did.

Within the culture of the department as a whole, the Onshore Refugee Program was regarded as an intellectual oddity. Strange as it may seem in the current climate of the Palmer Report and the incipient Senate Inquiry, the ORP was perceived as being liberal, and somehow over-educated, in its preparedness to allow applicants to stay in the country. The Orwellian-titled Compliance Branch, responsible for plucking over-stayers from their homes in the early hours of the morning and throwing them on departing planes, thought we were, as one muscled officer said to me when handing over a file, ‘a bunch of wankers’.

However, it was also recognised throughout the department that refugee issues had the potential to incite ugly debate in the Australian community. Nothing was ever done to educate the public out of its ignorance, but neither were policy decisions on asylum seekers promoted. The establishment of the detention system for illegal entrants in 1992 caused intense debate within the refugee policy community, but was barely mentioned by the Keating campaign in the following year’s federal election. Similarly, the 1 November 1993 decision that Chinese students trapped in Australia after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre could apply for permanent visas was released just prior to the Melbourne Cup, and thus was buried deep within the news sections of the major daily newspapers. And the decision to suspend processing of East Timorese applicants because of Foreign Affairs Department fears over Indonesia’s reaction was, likewise, kept quiet. Discretion may not have been the better part of valour in these cases, but nor were refugees regarded as ammunition for political fights.

After March 1996, that culture began to change. The Howard Government was elected on 2 March. The following day, the Secretary of the Immigration Department, Chris Conybeare, was sacked, along with the heads of five other departments. It was a clear message that the Public Service should hold no illusions: everything is politics.

After March 1996, immigration issues began to appear in the papers, on the radio, on television, and were no longer lost among the flotsam and jetsam of daily current affairs. An early, much-publicised initiative was the ten per cent reduction in the overall immigration intake. Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said—and now, clearly, it was permissible to express these thoughts—that the immigration program was ‘out of control’ and that it was time to take on ‘the immigration industry’. In Refugee Week, June 1996, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, spoke about ‘those who seek to pass themselves off as refugees, but have other agendas’, and the difficulties the department faced with those who gave such people ‘legal advice’. Attorney-General Daryl Williams added his opinion by stating that it was not a ‘basic human right’ for detained asylum seekers to be told they were entitled to this advice. Cabinet leaks revealed, and later policy changes proved the leaks correct, that the Government was planning to cut the number of overall refugee places and also deny asylum seekers access to welfare benefits. Pauline Hanson delivered her infamous maiden speech on 10 September, saying that ‘we are in danger of being swamped by Asians’. John Howard refused to rebut her erroneous claims, instead phrasing it as a question of free speech: ‘I would say in countries such as Australia people should be allowed to say that.’ A new regime was in charge.

Within the department, previously unspoken debates began to be aired, blown along by exchanges with Minister Ruddock’s office and internal reports such as that of October 1996 criticising the cost of the refugee determination system. How many refugees should be let in? Were we spending too much to process them? Why did we have to interview every applicant, couldn’t some simply be decided ‘on the papers’? What sort of message was the detention system sending to potential asylum seekers who had yet to leave their countries? Why shouldn’t East Timorese—the bugbears of the Refugee Program—be sent to Portugal where they are technically eligible for citizenship? (This last proposition followed the re-evaluation of a previously discarded piece of advice from a Portuguese law academic.)

As 1996 progressed, I also began to change, began to question what I was doing in such a place. I started to add up all the decisions I had made. It must have been about a hundred—more if the RRT decisions I drafted were counted. I began to think: including family members, how many people’s lives had been affected by my decisions? Two hundred? Three? Multiply that by the number of decision-makers working in the Immigration Department. Multiply that figure again by the number of years the system had been in operation. I started to get a sense of the social and psychological enormity of asylum seeking in Australia. The way the Immigration Department went about its business had implications that were far broader than I had been prepared to recognise. My work had implications. I realised, for the first time, surprisingly, that my job was truly serious. And it was becoming increasingly apparent that the minister’s office and the department cared less and less.

I left the department in late 1996, returning to the even more bizarre culture of academia to do a PhD. I was ready to go and, in a way, it seemed the only decent thing to do. The department was always grudging in its dealings with asylum seekers—I had been out to Villawood Detention Centre enough times to know that—but at least there had been a semblance of civility, and some recognition that nobody really came out of the system unscathed. For those decision-makers not overwhelmed or calcified by the experience, there had been a large measure of pride in doing the job humanely and effectively. The signs were clear several months after the Coalition’s 1996 victory, however, that pride of that kind would soon be hard to justify. Everything is politics and politics is everything—the elections of 1998 and 2001 were to prove that true of refugee policy, but even in 1996 it was becoming obvious, and I didn’t want to be a part of it.

Even though I’ve been out of the Immigration Department for nearly nine years, I’m not surprised it has been excoriated by the Palmer Report: the writing was on the wall long ago. I am not surprised; the department deserves to be flayed for its handling of the Cornelia Rau case, the Vivian Alvarez Solon case, and all the other time bombs among its files that are waiting to explode. But observers should be under no misapprehension that the Howard Government did anything other than get the department it wanted. It pushed, it prodded, it politicised. And, unless a ‘smoking gun’ is found that directly links ex-Minister Ruddock to the cases reviewed, it is unlikely that the key architect of the departmental culture that normalised acts such as the detention of Cornelia Rau will ever be held accountable.

Given the recent history of the children-overboard inquiries, and their failure to hold Prime Minister John Howard to account, in spite of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, it would be foolhardy to expect that Ruddock will answer for his part in the debacle that has become Australia’s immigration policy. Perhaps the worst aspect of all this is that we no longer expect, or dare hope for, such accountability. It is not only the Immigration Department’s culture that has changed since March 1996.        

Tom Davis is a lecturer in public policy at the University of Melbourne.



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