JOHN NIEUWENHUYSEN. Dark Days for Immigration Policy. Nation building or border protection.

Mar 21, 2017

The concept of Australia’s Immigration Department being a minor part of a version of the United States department of homeland security is a frightening one. What will have happened to the “Welcome to Australia” banners of years past?  

In days of yore, in the 1990’s, Commonwealth public servants were known to muse about the relative status of different departments in the Federal administration. To provide telling and vivid comparisons, the varying reputations and attractiveness of policy fiefdoms were signified by reference to foods. Thus, for example, at the pinnacle of the ladder hierarchy were Foreign Affairs-smoked salmon-and Treasury-aged prime fillet steak.

Where did Immigration stand? Most often, at the base of the ladder, and denoted by such unappetising dishes as cold pig’s ear.

This ranking was no doubt unfair. In those times of which I speak, for example, there was a fine Minister in Robert Ray, and a highly personable and humane Secretary, Ron Brown. But above all, the Department presided over a nation building intake program with responsibility for settlement services and care for new arrivals. Also, under Ray and Brown, and the Hawke Government, a major effort to create independent research analysis and information was initiated with the creation of a Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research [BIMPR] in 1989. After some 300 publications and a major longitudinal survey of Australian immigration, as well as numerous conferences, the BIMPR was abolished by the Howard Government when it came to power in early 1996.

Since those times, the Department and its reputation have sunk lower and ever lower. Much of this deterioration can be laid at the doorstep of Government attitudes to “boat people”. The enlightened, humane policies of the Fraser Government from 1976-1982 allowing some 200,000 refugees from the Vietnam war [after processing in Malaysia and Hong Kong] were replaced in 1992 by the Keating Government’s rule of mandatory detention for all those without a valid visa.

However, the incident which gave birth to the predominant [and vote winning] preoccupation of the Howard Government in 2001 was the so called Tampa crisis. Then, some 433 asylum seekers on a rickety boat were rescued by a Norwegian vessel, the Tampa. The Australian Government, however, refused to allow the asylum seekers to land on Australian shores. The majority [283] were transferred to a detention centre on Nauru, and 150 were accepted for resettlement in New Zealand. Thus began the highly disputatious policy of the refusal by successive Australian governments to allow asylum seekers to land on the Australian mainland and be processed here under the rules of the UNHCR charter [even though, in authoritative estimates, 90% of boat people would have qualified to be dubbed refugees and entitled to be accepted in Australia.] The methods employed by Australian Governments, especially those under Abbott and Turnbull, have aroused much strident opposition both in Australia and internationally. Protests have been persistent, vigorous and indignant, with calls for transparency, the application of the rule of law, and freedom of speech and information, within and beyond detention centres in regard to processes of administration and treatment of detainees.

This preoccupation with the justice of the boat people or asylum seeker policy has dominated and overshadowed previous interest in the permanent migration and settlement program [its size, composition and consequences] and left the former major task of the Immigration Department on the sidelines of debate. In addition, with the shift of responsibility for settlement services away from the Immigration Department, its residual province of duty has seemed ever more like what a “Border Force”, in the new nomenclature, would be concerned with, ie, keeping people out; controlling them, for example in regard to regional location; and sniffing out any predispositions for terrorist activities among new arrivals.

The intensity of opposition of some to the “stopping the boats” policy [however much of a vote winner it is] leads them to recall the biblical question: “What will it benefit a person if they gain the world but lose their soul?” However, that question is now in danger of being placed in a context far wider than stopping the boats.

Peter Hartcher [Sydney Morning Herald March 7, 2017] writes that Prime Minister Turnbull is “…considering a proposal for a major restructuring of the federal government that would create a US-style Department of Homeland Security. The stated aim of the plan is to improve the coordination across the government in preventing terrorist attacks…merging at least half a dozen federal agencies…into a mega department. The enlarged department would be built on the existing Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which already includes the Australian Border Force.”

The concept of Australia’s Immigration Department being a minor part of a version of the United States department of homeland security is a frightening one. What will have happened to the “Welcome to Australia” banners of years past? It is of course necessary that all new arrivals be monitored by security checks. But for the whole programme to be subsumed in the welter of a mega security department is another scene altogether.

Karen Middleton [The Saturday Paper March 11, p.3] reports that the immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, and his Department Secretary, Mike Pezullo, have pressed a case, canvassed but not applied in earlier years, “arguing their department is best placed to oversee a centralised agency.” This idea, According to Middleton, had been considered but rejected years apart by previous Coalition and Labor Governments. However, Peter Leahy of Canberra University, and formerly chief of army, has expressed the view that the time has arrived to place security control under one roof, as, in his opinion, it is better to have “command and control and a centralised budget” rather than depending on “co-operation and collaboration.”

A move to make immigration part of a monster sized security department seems to me most unwise. The aura of security surveillance that would permeate and hang over immigration practice and policy would be deadening. It would cast a dark shadow over the administrative transparency and general openness which should characterise immigration management. In particular, security agencies are not well known for fostering independent research, for which there is a great need so that light can be cast upon innumerable aspects of immigration and its consequences. One can simply not envisage such research being undertaken. Nor is it easy to imagine Citizenship ceremonies being as joyful or anticipated as today. Big Brother would have moved in. George Orwell’s fears would live again. So please can these plans be shelved now, as they were when in 2008, the then secretary of defence, Rick Smith’s review, concluded that a homeland security department was not required.

John Nieuwenhuysen AM is an Emeritus Professor at Monash University, and was Director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research from 1989-1996

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