It's Time For DIAC To Answer Some Questions


The very first line of Mick Palmer's Report into Cornelia Rau's illegal detention ran: “protection of individual liberty is at the heart of Australian democracy.” Can we really believe that anymore?

Between 1958 and 1968, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote his scarifying account of the Soviet prison, which he called The Gulag Archipelago. The archipelago reference was metaphorical: with hundreds of prison camps scattered through the frigid taiga of Siberia's vastness, the effect was like a cluster of islands studded in an arboreal sea.

Australians are supposed to enjoy a talent for irony. There is black irony in the system of prison and punishment that we have developed in the past decade to deal with the tens of thousands of innocent people unlucky enough to seek asylum on our shores. Australia is building a gulag archipelago on various islands to our north.

The word gulag is actually an acronym for the Soviet Union's penal bureaucracy, known as the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps.

Here in Australia, we're creating our own ghastly abbreviations, such as “SIEV” ( a suspected illegal entry vessel – in other words, a boat) and “IMAs” (“irregular maritime arrivals” – in other words, seaborne asylum seekers). Instead of gulag, we have DIAC: the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. With Orwellian appropriateness, the chief business of this department now seems to be denying legitimate immigration, and preventing people becoming citizens.

Tony Abbott's proposal today to place a general or admiral in charge of border security, working alongside the Immigration Department, would merely formalise a reality that already exists on the ground – or should we say, the water.

It is the job of the Immigration Department to faithfully carry out the policy of the elected government. And heaven knows, that policy becomes crueller and more unusual by the day. But the febrile nature of asylum politics means that all the policy incentives run towards punishment, rather than humanity.

When the framework of policy becomes criminalised and militarised, when the entire thrust of government policy becomes deterrence, and when a powerful bureaucracy is shielded from scrutiny and accountability, the end results are horrific — as we've seen with this week's revelations of mistreatment and abuse occuring under DIAC's watch on Manus Island.

And that's where we've arrived in 2013, as a result of 12 years of political demonisation. The allegations aired by the SBS Dateline program on Tuesday night about detainees raping and torturing one another on Manus Island are entirely in line with what we know about an increasingly unaccountable Immigration Department.

DIAC allows little independent media scrutiny of its operations and facilities, banning most journalists from entering its jails. Nor is it entirely accountable to the Parliament, with responses to questions at Senate Estimates hearings often dodged or elided on the grounds that the Immigration Department has “a process that we go through”.

The problem is that, all too often, those processes fail. Way back in 2001, the Howard government unlawfully deported an Australian citizen, Vivian Alvarez Solon, to the Phillippines. Senior Immigration Department officials knew she had been wrongly deported, but did nothing. In 2005, the government launched an inquiry after it was found the Immigration Department had illegally imprisoned an Australian permanent resident, Cornelia Rau. Rau disappeared from Manly Hospital in 2004. She ended up in Baxter Detention Centre, by way of a Brisbane women's jail.

A subsequent inquiry into the issue by federal policeman Mick Palmer later found deep cultural issues in the Immigration Department and glaring deficiencies in the way the department handled its responsibilities.

Palmer put his finger on the nub of the problem: “[Immigration] officers are authorised to exercise exceptional, even extraordinary, powers,” he wrote. This power was largely unfettered; there were few checks and balances. Palmer found that the Immigration Department was using federal privacy laws as a shield to elude scrutiny in a way he said was “clearly against the public interest.”

The policy imperatives towards security and detention meant that staff were more interested in making sure potential “irregular arrivals” weren't escaping the system, rather than whether their individual liberties and human rights were being respected. As a result, Palmer wrote, “there is a serious cultural problem within DIMIA’s immigration compliance and detention areas: urgent reform is necessary.”

The Department embarked on a highly publicised reform drive, which it trumpeted as evidence it was on the mend. More Newspeak crept into the department's language: with unintended but revealing connotations of people smuggling, its motto became “people our business”.

There is one respect in which the Department of Immigration differs from totalitarian precedents. Unlike the implacable bureaucracies of mid-century, our own penal apparatus has a prominent spokesman – the public face of the department, you might say. This man is not the Minister for Immigration, but rather Sandi Logan, the department's ubiquitous media officer, complete with his own official Twitter feed and enthusiastic television persona.

Logan's prominence is partly a result of the outsized political sensitivity of the portfolio. But it has also grown to the point where Logan is nearly as recognisable as the Immigration Minister himself. Given that Immigration Ministers have rotated regularly throughout the Rudd and Gillard governments (itself a warning sign that appropriate oversight is lacking), Logan is arguably a more effective and more recognisable media presence than the elected minister he supposedly represents.

Logan is known for his driven persona and aggressive “push-back” when working with the media. When Matthew Knott profiled him in 2012, he openly admitted he takes a confrontational approach. “When things are misreported – or, even worse, when they're misreported as part of an agenda – I do get cross and I get in touch with the journo,” he told Knott. “It's not a threat but a courtesy.”

Is Logan's overweening media persona appropriate in the context of an independent and impartial Australian public service? No. The Minister is the appropriate person to comment on government policy and departmental matters. That an unelected bureaucrat has come to wield so much media influence is a symptom of the agency's governance problems. It is a warning sign alerting us to a rogue department.

Now, serious questions must be raised as to whether that reform effort was successful. We're seeing all the same stories of bureaucratic buck-passing, toxic institutional culture and spin-driven media cover-ups. But no crisp answer at Senate Estimates can obscure the increasingly concerning allegations of the Immigration Department's culpability. Death on the high seas. Rape and torture in Australian immigration prisons. An expanding system of punitive detention that 32 Salvation Army workers have labelled “cruel and degrading”.

Of course, cruelty has its degrees, and no-one can seriously allege the Australian system is anywhere as evil as Soviet Russia's. What we can argue is that, like the gulags, a complex system of institutional punishment and detention has been constructed, with little in the way of democratic oversight.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.