Time to lay bare what’s gone wrong in Home Affairs
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Safeguarding a country’s borders is one of the most critical responsibilities for any national government. While deterring an invasion is the highest priority, overseeing the flow of goods and people into the country is core business, particularly for a nation as reliant on immigration as Australia.
This week, in a series of investigative stories published by The Age and 60 Minutes, it has been revealed how this oversight has gone seriously wrong under the watch of the Department of Home Affairs.
Credit: Matthew Absalom-Wong
The litany of failures is shocking in its scale and apparent disregard for human suffering. It includes the Albanian mafia strategically rorting the migration system for more than a decade to build powerful criminal enterprises, extensive misuse of Australia’s immigration system resulting in human trafficking, and modern slavery rings acting with impunity. Then there are the millions of taxpayer dollars being handed over by Home Affairs to powerful politicians in the Pacific through suspect payments to prop up the controversial offshore asylum seeker processing centres.
Any one of these revelations would be enough to raise alarm bells and scrutiny, but together they surely demand the investigative powers of either the newly formed National Anti-Corruption Commission or a royal commission.
Headed at its creation in 2017 by now Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and department secretary Michael Pezzullo, Home Affairs was created as a super agency that would strengthen Australia’s borders and be a tough cop on the beat watching over the movement of goods and people, while making the immigration system more efficient and technologically able.
It is evident that it has fallen well short of those aspirations.
It is not just The Age’s sustained reporting that has exposed Home Affairs’ alarming deficiencies. Inquiries led by former Victoria Police chief Christine Nixon and former public servant Martin Parkinson have uncovered gaping systemic problems, with violent criminals manipulating the visa process to stay in the country for a decade or more, while in-demand skilled overseas workers are subjected to years-long delays.
When The Age delved into the workings of Home Affairs, it found a department deeply politicised, striving to establish and prop up the hard-line “stop the boats” policy and offshore processing system at a cost into the billions of dollars while crucial enforcement functions lost funding and attention, allowing hundreds of thousands of people with spurious asylum seeker claims to arrive by plane and remain.
While Pezzullo, who still heads the department under Labor, has supporters on both sides of the political divide, he also has no shortage of critics. Liberal MP Karen Andrews, who was home affairs minister for 14 months before the last election, believes he should bear considerable responsibility for the department’s many failings “simply because he’s the secretary”. With a recent record as blemished as his, it’s a remarkable feat of public service survival that he kept his job after the change of government.
One also has to put under the microscope ministerial responsibility, which is central to the Westminster parliamentary system. Andrews can cast aspersions on her former departmental head, but she was well within her ministerial remit to put the case to then-prime minister Scott Morrison for Pezzullo to be moved on. Clearly, that never happened.
As for Dutton: from the get-go, when he and Pezzullo worked together as minister and departmental head of Immigration and Border Protection, the predecessor to Home Affairs, they shared a “threat-based view of the world”. This laid the foundation for the tough language and policies that were directed at asylum seekers arriving by boat to the detriment of many other functions of the department.
With such an extensive list of accusations revealed by the Home Truths investigative series this week, the question then is not whether it should be investigated, but by whom. Police already have at least one investigation underway but, as The Age has reported, there are concerns that the scope of the concerns and their complexity, particularly if payments overseas are probed, might require a different vehicle.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has hinted that the new national corruption watchdog could lead an inquiry, but wants more time to review the allegations.
Home Affairs, which is at the centre of the allegations, is doing its best to avoid blame, claiming whatever problems exist, they are isolated examples against an otherwise excellent record. It does, however, seem to accept the new integrity regime and urged anyone with information on wrongdoing to report it to the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Independent MP Zali Steggall has gone one step further, raising concerns that an investigation led by the new anti-corruption commission would be held behind closed doors and that a royal commission is the only way that “this whole policy area can be publicly examined”.
The Age shares such concerns. This was not a one-off, or a rogue actor. This was a government department that for many years turned a blind eye to suspect payments to overseas politicians, foreign criminal gangs not only entering Australia, but prospering on our shores, and having oversight of a visa system that was open to widespread rorting and exploitation.
Peter Hartcher reports in today that the federal government is considering establishing an independent inquiry into the issues raised in The Age’s Home Truths series.
The Age believes that the seriousness of these issues to public administration should be sufficient for the NACC commissioner, Paul Brereton, to declare that this case meets the “exceptional circumstances” test for public hearings.
If this is not possible, then we might need a full royal commission. One way or another we must lay bare what has gone so horribly wrong in Home Affairs.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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