Passing the Buck in DIMIA


The release of the critical report about the treatment of Vivian Alvarez Solon by former Victorian Police Commissioner Neil Comrie has led to considerable public disquiet.

In response, the Prime Minister, John Howard, has offered a tepid defence of his Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone. She has been allowed to swing in the breeze taking the hits that should have been directed at Howard and Ruddock who established the culture in the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) which has now been exposed to public scrutiny.

Bill Farmer

Bill Farmer

Certainly, Vanstone only followed the brief, and she was weak for not seeking basic changes within DIMIA. But it was Howard who chaired the Cabinet meetings which decided that the Labor Party policy of mandatory detention should be extended. It was Howard who said in 2001 that Australia would decide who came here and when. It was Howard who allowed Max Moore Wilton to turn around the Tampa. It was Howard who put the lid on any investigation into the drowning of 357 asylum seekers on SIEVX. It was Howard who first demonised the Australian Muslim community and then hand picked the representatives of that community who were allowed to put a view to government.

It has been Howard who has set the tone and direction of policy from involvement in the Iraq war, to refugees, Aborigines, industrial relations and Telstra.

Howard has acquired more and more power over the past ten years – let him now accept responsibility for the outcomes which he has created.

Vanstone is dispensable, Ruddock is not. Ruddock, together with the head of the AFP, Mick Keelty, know where the skeletons are buried. No doubt the tactic is to allow Vanstone to be the target – in the belief that she is sufficiently aggressive to absorb and deflect the flack. Vanstone and Ruddock are unlovely and unloved characters. That suits Howard, it takes media and public attention away from his ability to control the political agenda including Immigration.

But it is not so simple. The role and responsibility of the former head of Immigration, Bill Farmer, has been largely overlooked. Why have a head of department if that person does not act against incompetence, cruelty and racism? On the assumption that he knew what officers in his department were doing, the decisions they were taking, and that he knew about conditions in detention facilities he should be made to answer and should certainly not be given further senior government appointments. And the same sanctions should apply if he did not know.

Which ever way it is viewed, Farmer failed in the responsibility for which he was charged and entrusted, namely, to properly and lawfully manage the affairs and responsibilities of a major government department given considerable responsibility for human lives and welfare.

If his minister and parliament would not heed his advice, he should have resigned, sought redress or taken whatever form of action he thought necessary in the public interest to protect the lives and mental health of those under his administrative care. Perhaps he agreed with Tampa, children in detention, the demonisation of asylum seekers and an out of control compliance regime. In which case, he should be drummed out of public life.

As uncomfortable as it may be, Farmer has to accept blame and responsibility for what occurred in the name of the Immigration Department under his term as departmental head. Taxpayers and members of the public must be able to have confidence in public servants. There may be little faith in our feckless and flakey politicians but if the Westminster system and our democracy is to survive, then our public servants must do the right thing.

Farmer has been nominated by Howard as Australia’s next Ambassador to Indonesia, which is one of Australia’s most important diplomatic posts. To be Ambassador requires judgment and management skills of a high order. A high order of judgment and diplomatic advice to the Australian government is required at all times. And now terrorism has created a new volatility in the relationship with Indonesia.

Given the Rau and Solon cases, given Tampa and the detention regime, can there be any confidence that Farmer could perform at this level? Drug, refugee and border protection issues, including illegal fishing, will continue as major concerns in the relationship with Indonesia. Given the delicate and brittle nature of the relationship with Indonesia, shouldn’t the most adroit and competent of Australia’s senior diplomats be sent there?

And what of the Indonesian Government? Would they want to accept the most senior officer from a Department that has fostered racial bias and prejudice as detailed in the Comrie Report?

Farmer must be made to give a full account of the decisions he was responsible for and provide an explanation of the reasons for the systemic failure of the duty of care for people placed in the protection of the Immigration Department during his time as head of that department.

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.