I was an employee of the Department of Immigration (now DIMIA) for 12 years. It was a sick system when I joined in 1985, and it hasn’t got better.

In writing this I am not taking the lathe (as in Latham) to the wonderful creatures I worked with. Some people were very kind, some were tolerant, many were patient, others super-supportive. We had many laughs, generated great ideas and there was a lot of fun, friendship and even some work satisfaction. But I feel it’s time to speak out about the Department as I knew it.

The immigration program itself is made up of a migration and refugee stream. The theory is that these are different breeds migrants positively choose to come here; whereas refugees are propelled from their countries by negative forces. The Department is also pretty much a reflection of this many people choose to migrate into the public service for positive reasons like job security, ‘making a difference’, even serving the public; whereas others are driven there by personal problems or the inability to survive in the outside world.

Thanks to Scratch

For a short but sweet six weeks in 1986, I was seconded to another department, processing applications from graduates wanting to work in the Commonwealth public service. Graduates in the humanities often wanted to join (as I did in my ignorance) for reasons related to improving people’s lot, and possibly Australia’s multiculturalism.

Once employed, some of us semi-humanists tried speaking up about what we thought was amiss with the ‘culture’ of the Department. But before long, most of us learned to keep quiet. For some, fatty degeneration of the conscience set in and gradually smothered any urges, while drowning the inner voice resulted in cirrhosis of the soul.

If few of us were brave enough to speak out about the inhumane things being done to our fellow workers, then we certainly weren’t going to say much about the unconscionable things that were done in the name of ‘protecting our borders’. Almost anything seemed to be excusable on the grounds of keeping the country ‘a local shop’. I heard one officer say to an applicant who wanted to stay in Australia because it was peaceful and harmonious: ‘That’s because we don’t let your sort in here.’ The League of Gentlemen crossed with The Ministry of Fear.

Until some tricky government minister thought of designating places like Outer Mongolia ‘inside the migration zone’, Australia’s borders used to be mainly pre-ordained by geography and girt. This side of the border, what exactly were we protecting? A country where even people who had permanent employment were afraid to speak out? ‘Border protection’ encouraged us to be borderline sociopaths.

As in other organisations, many evils were attributable to bad management, and I became a union delegate to try and support my fellow workers. In those days, before I grasped that there is bad will in the world, I naively thought that if workers were treated more humanely some goodwill might trickle down to the Client.

Ah, the Client!

They may be called Clients but their ‘business’ is certainly not valued. Many DIMIAns wished fervently that the Clients would all get lost. Those who worked in Compliance (or Enforcement, as it was called when I first started there) were in the unenviable position of being able to help the Clients on their way. This could be done by spiriting them out of Australia to some country they had never lived in, or worse, to one they were desperate not to revisit. Some DIMIAns would listen, apparently unmoved, to dreadful tales of how a Client had suffered: house bombed, children killed, etc. Same officer would later pass an hour complaining about their personal tragedy, such as having caught a cold or lost a bet.

Still, a person without a visa is not a person.

Besides, us DIMIAns were so busy with the snags and ladders of survival within the Department that we didn’t have much time for dealing with the actual public. Our days were well occupied with the scrabbling of claws on the slippery slope of the ‘career path’, the scribbling of endless job applications, and other aspects of selection processes including currying favour with people we hoped had influence. To me, Yes Minister was no longer funny.

There were some admirable Departmental officers but I was often appalled at the attitudes, ignorance and prejudice of some decision-makers. Surely, to make an informed decision it is necessary to consider more than one side of the issue. These people were making decisions on other people’s lives and, by extension, on the future of Australia while having no clue that people who thought, lived or behaved differently from themselves could still be human.

Periodically, the media notices that immigration officers have more power than the police in being able to enter and search premises, haul off suspects, and eventually deport them. Imagine the effect of possessing such power on someone who is not very mature or compassionate. If you can’t imagine it read The Position of Her Power by Fauzia Rafiq, a Canadian author. Perhaps it’s only a minority of people with power who abuse it, but far too many others are silent, and condone by their silence.

Minister Vanstone is promoting the idea of a training college for DIMIAns. During my time, there were waves of training. In the positive periods, we had enjoyable ‘generic’ courses such as Negotiation Skills. At other times we would get Document Fraud and Dealing with Difficult Clients.

On occasion there were attempts by top management to broaden our understanding of the world and ourselves with courses about conflict resolution, time management and one notable effort to analyse ‘DIMIA-culturalism’. A well-known guru of human resources came to ‘reculturalise’ us. She asked the assembled pack who, among their colleagues, they admired. As I recall, the hall of fame/rogues gallery consisted mainly of compliance ‘cowboys’ and maybe one good State Director. Nobody (certainly not me) mentioned someone like X a departmental officer who went public with his condemnation of the Department’s refugee/asylum-seeker processing as biased and racist. His career came to a bad end and he was never mentioned again in polite company. He died not long after.

Most of these courses were great fun because we usually enjoyed each other’s company and the break from ‘real’ work. But concepts like conflict resolution, negotiation, client service, cross-cultural training didn’t really stick because they were as unfamiliar to most of us as ‘Introduction to Computing’ would be to a person who’s never used a computer and won’t see one again for three months.

I’m writing about the Department of Immigration as I knew it (I left in 1998), but things are the same now, as they are in many other organisations government or not.

I am ashamed that I have not spoken up before this, even into the void. I am ashamed that I was and am a coward. I have a bad case of survivor guilt.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.