New Minister, Old Department


When Kevin Rudd won office I had a reasonable expectation of him and his Ministers doing the right thing, so I was angry when I received a heads up earlier this week that the Minister for Immigration, Senator Chris Evans, was about to head off to Indonesia to discuss people smuggling. And it appeared he was not planning to inform the public of his visit – at least not prior to his departure.

(While in Opposition, Labor questioned the cost and transparency of the arrangements between Indonesia and Australia on people smuggling, which were aimed at "disrupting" boats of refugees arriving from Indonesia, and became controversial with the sinking of the SIEV X.)

By Tuesday morning a press release still hadn’t been issued by Evans’s office, so I rang every journalist I knew to let them know, including Steve Cannane at Radio National Breakfast, who called to arrange an interview with the Minister for the next morning.

A press release was then put out (received by the ABC at 6.15pm) on the eve of Evans’s departure. The scope of his visit appeared to have been widened to include calls on the Indonesian Foreign Minister, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). It is somewhat unusual, in diplomatic terms, for the Minister for Immigration to meet with the Indonesian Foreign Minister before the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs has done so. This meeting appeared to be a smokescreen.

The furtive nature of Evans’s trip smacked of him being a captive of the old mindset and methodology of his Department. Is the Department trying to lock the new Minister into past decisions and practices in order to keep the lid on the dirty cauldron that Immigration has become?

If so, Evans, who is not the brightest spark on the block, appears to have fallen into their trap.

Evans was interviewed by Cannane on Wednesday, the morning of his departure. In the course of that interview the Minister confirmed that ALP policy included the continued excision of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from the Migration Zone and said a decision hadn’t been made on whether the other 4,000 islands excluded by the Howard Government would continue to be so, despite Labor claiming it would scrap the Pacific Solution.

Surprisingly, in view of his appointments with the IOM and the UNHCR, when asked whether he was going to raise the issue of Afghani asylum seekers who landed at Ashmore Reef in 2001 and are now trapped on Lombok in Indonesia, he claimed not to have been briefed on the issue. This is surprising given the number of representations that have been received by his office and department.

Evans told Cannane that he was talking to his Indonesian counterpart in order to strengthen existing arrangements between the two countries relating to people smuggling, but when asked whether policy was likely to change under Labor he skirted the question.

I had called the Minister’s office the previous day to ask if it was correct that he was travelling to Indonesia to discuss people smuggling. After some delay the office said it would get back to me. No one did that day. The next day I rang and was put through to the press secretary who proceeded to demonstrate a glass jaw comparable to Howard Minister staffers. It was claimed that the Minister, after six weeks in the job, was still getting across his portfolio. I said that Penny Wong appeared to need no such excuse. And in any case, with refugee issues front and centre in Parliament over the past eleven years, where had the Minister been?

Other callers elicited the information, from a different source, that the Minister would have a full brief on the Lombok refugees before his plane landed in Jakarta.

Pathetic. What then was the purpose of the visit if the Minister was so poorly briefed? Or perhaps the question should be: what is the real nature of the policy relating to people smuggling if part of the policy is to keep the Minister in the dark?

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.