Powerful and sensitive weapons need to be handled with extreme care if they are not to harm the user as well as the intended victim. Ministerial intervention is a powerful and sensitive weapon.
In any democratic system it is a necessary and desirable one: elected ministers must always be the ultimate arbiters, which is why the bureaucrats refer to them, somewhat ruefully, as their political masters.
But the weapon cannot be used recklessly or capriciously; the ability of a politician to override the considered advice of his department must always be treated as an exception and to be capable of justification if challenged, as it frequently will be.
And nowhere is this problem more fraught than in the area of immigration. This portfolio is almost unique within federal politics, because it involves retail politics, The commonwealth has a top-of-the-pile role in the administration of services to the public, but as a result of the constitution the vast bulk of them – education, health, and most of welfare – go to the states where the individual clients are concerned.
Thus whatever conflicts that emerge are usually at arm’s length from Canberra, which is just as the feds like it. If their constituents lobby for favours, they can be instantly duck-shoved across to the next level of government – except in the case of immigration, where the buck stops firmly with the federal minister and his department.
As the now former minister Peter Dutton says, there is a constant stream of submissions from the public and from their representatives – whether advocates, log rollers or private members just passing the messages on – demanding that unfavourable decisions be overturned.
Most, of course, are not; the vast majority of times the bureaucrats get it right – or at least right enough to satisfy the minister. And the ones who get the verdict they were hoping for are unlikely to complain, which means the minister gets a private pat on the back and can get on with his real work.
But if, as in the case of Dutton and his department, this involves a ruthlessness bordering on brutality where legitimate asylum seekers were involved, it is hardly sensible to rush through visas for a pair of attractive young women rejected by the department in the name of humanitarianism.
And the fact that there is at least a suspicion that helping out mates were involved has led to accusations of cronyism, if not actual corruption. At the very least, Dutton is guilty of double standards – although the hapless internees on Nauru and Manus may ask if he has any standards at all.
Even before the au pair controversy was revealed, it was obvious that the amalgamation of border security and immigration was running into difficulties, which is presumably one reason Scott Morrison has hived immigration off to David Coleman, who can be relied on to keep his head down.
So Dutton can continue to be Darth Vader in the larger job, once he gets through the current brouhaha – which he will; he may be rightly discredited by the voters and even by his former CEO, Roman Quadvlieg, but still has plenty of protection in the party room.
But the fact that he reckons he is being white-anted, from his own department and his own side, means there will still be tensions ahead. It may be time for ministerial discretion to be rather more discreet.