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Why I quit the department

  • 24 April 2006

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