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Feathers ruffled: how hawks took over the Immigration nest

There’s disquiet in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Canberra since the latter part of the new name became its top priority. Is valuable corporate knowledge and experience walking out the door?

Highly experienced bureaucrats have vacated the Department of Immigration and Border Protection since its amalgamation with Customs began last year, amid mounting concerns within the department over how its mission has been recast by secretary Michael Pezzullo.

The extensive restructure coupled with a seismic shift in priorities — to place border protection ahead of nation building through managed migration — was always going to cause organisational upheaval. But there are signs confidence in the department is low among immigration bureaucrats, including some of Australia’s most committed and experienced experts.

Deputy secretaries Liz Cosson, Wendy Southern and Mark Cormack have all handed in their resignations — and been snapped up quickly by other agencies — since Pezzullo’s ascension last October. Not that either the departmental website or the federal public service online directory reflect that; both still list Southern and Cormack in their old positions.

The Mandarin understands these are not the only high-level departures catalysed by Pezzullo’s appointment and the integration of the smaller agency into DIBP. At least two first assistant secretaries, including the chief lawyer, have also jumped ship along with at least two assistant secretaries. Vicki Parker is still listed online as the head of the legal division.

“They weren’t willing to support the direction that the department was taking,” one person with intimate knowledge of the situation said on condition of anonymity, a contention backed up by several other credible sources. The brain drain “is continuing to happen in quite serious numbers, and this is quite serious senior talent”, according to the same source.

“They weren’t willing to support the direction that the department was taking.”

It is not known who is performing the key roles as the profound machinery-of-government change rumbles on — nor is the effect that such a dramatic loss of corporate knowledge and policy capability will have on the organisation that is set to emerge from its opaque chrysalis on July 1. One thing is certain: their skills are still needed, with the migration program running at full steam and being opened up more in certain visa categories under the Abbott government.

The department’s media team was unable to answer these and other questions from The Mandarin around exactly which and how many senior executives have decided to leave, who is performing their jobs, and when the various websites will be updated, before deadline.

It is not hard to find privately expressed disenchantment with the integration process, the new mission of DIBP and its command-and-control leadership style. This includes a strict chain of command throughout the entire organisation, not just within its new paramilitary-style enforcement arm, Australian Border Force, which one well-placed observer noted was unnecessarily cumbersome.

“I think it’s counterproductive and I think it’s totally inappropriate for Immigration,” they said. “It might work for a small element in the compliance field or in the border operations, but to suggest that this sort of command and control, and this sort of heavily regimented, heavily structured, quasi-military, quasi-law enforcement atmosphere is needed in an area where you’re developing policy, where you’re delivering programs, where you’re interviewing people about their visas, is ridiculous.”

Hawks, doves and a ‘culture of fear’

The Mandarin has heard of a “culture of fear” now pervading Immigration, much more restricted flows of information, and unusual edicts such as to address certain staff members by formal titles rather than first names.

The introduction of fitness testing and drug and alcohol screening across the board is also raising eyebrows. A new integrity system that demands candid disclosures about the private lives of employees, over and above existing security clearances, has a lot of staff wondering why they enjoy less trust from their superiors than counterparts elsewhere in the Commonwealth. The business case for such efforts is unclear.

The difficulty of locating supporters for the way the structural changes are being implemented, the leadership style and organisational culture or the new border-focused policy doctrine does not mean it does not have supporters. The portfolio has long been populated with hawks and doves — which some call the “light side” and the “dark side”. The hawks are now decisively taking over the nest, and pushing a lot of talent out.

Contributing to national security has always been part of the department’s job, along with carefully managing the economic and social consequences of migration, but there is a strong view within DIBP that its strategic thinking now comes from a defensive state of mind.

Arja Keski-Nummi, a former first assistant secretary who headed up the humanitarian and international division of the department from 2007-2010, says she’d look for the nearest exit if she were still in the department. “It’s a very big cultural shift,” she told The Mandarin. Keski-Nummi says it began with settlement services for new migrants being moved into the Department of Social Services and the migrant English teaching program to Industry, changes that have also been criticised by former Immigration deputy secretary Peter Hughes.

“That,” she said, “I thought was really disturbing. You could see that the current government does not, I just think they just actually don’t get it, to tell you the truth — and that’s being kind — about where Immigration sits, say, for business, for education and so forth, all of those sorts of visa programs.

“You could see that the current government does not, I just think they just actually don’t get it, to tell you the truth …”

“What I’m seeing happening is — just recently there was a restructure, and they abolished the refugee division completely. And as one person put it to me, they just needed to get the terms ‘refugee’ or ‘humanitarian’ out of the top structure chart. That is, you cannot anywhere now in the organisational structure see those words, which is a big cultural shift. Yeah, abolish a division — divisions are always being abolished and changed and so forth — but to take out one core area of work and just it blend it into a migration-type division just says a lot about what is happening.”

Of course, that top structure and a full picture of the restructure is not public, which makes it difficult for academics like Keski-Nummi, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Development, and Hughes, a visiting public policy fellow at the Australian National University’s Crawford School, to contribute to any discussion.

“Morale is one part of it,” Keski-Nummi said. “The other is that when you take out such a large corporate memory, there are problems. Immigration is actually governed by a lot of rules and regulations; the legislation is very complex. And, from where I sit, an accident is waiting to happen … and while it may not be a Vivian Solon or a Cornelia Rau, something will happen.”

She adds that while a large proportion of Immigration staff do not work in compliance and enforcement roles, the message from the boss seems to be that security is the department’s main focus. That, she says, is why talented senior staff whose skills are wanted in other agencies, despite the hiring freeze, are taking the opportunity to leave.

“And it’s not just the senior ranks,” said Keski-Nummi. “People are looking to leave right across the board because they don’t like the message they’re getting. It’s not what they joined the department to do.”

She believes that, in future, this or a different government may be advised to try to rebuild and refocus the department’s expertise in the complex, dynamic area of migration programs for students, business entry, permanent migration, family reunions and the refugee intake — “tiny” by comparison to the rest — and that rebuilding will take a long time.

“I see it as a really disruptive process,” she said. “It’s a sort of wrecking period, which is really sad. It’s like the end of a dream; the post-World War II dream of nation building, and cultural diversity. And instead, now it’s like we’ve got to fear migration; we’ve got to fear diversity, so we’ve got to fear [what are actually] our strengths.”

Tony Kevin, a former Australian ambassador and author of two books on asylum seeker policy, has written similarly at The Conversation of the “major recasting of traditional immigration and border security doctrines and institutions”:

“Pezzullo’s concept of borders as flexible spaces risks sanctioning illegal activities abroad by the Navy and other agencies to disrupt and forcibly turn back on-water asylum seekers.”

A merger a long time coming

The idea of merging Customs and Immigration into one agency has been one idea waiting for a government minister to take it up since shortly after the September 11 attacks, which expedited the creation of the United States Department of Homeland Security, a similarly security-focused chimera of customs, immigration and border security agencies. In 2010, a paper was prepared outlining a possible merger, but according to informed sources it was played down in briefs to Julia Gillard’s incoming minority government and put on the backburner.

During the second Gillard government, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen lost confidence in one of his deputy secretaries, Bob Correll, and sacked him. Correll was asked to leave within hours, and later re-emerged as chief of staff to former minister Scott Morrison (pictured above), who he advised to resurrect the Homeland Security-style merger idea.

According to one person who wished to remain anonymous: “Customs could never understand why we believed firmly in the rule of law, why we believed firmly in ensuring that all avenues of appeal and review were exhausted before a decision was made.”

The original proposal was drafted by Immigration, but according to our source: “Bob was very much of the ‘dark side’ within the Immigration portfolio. His dream had always been to merge Customs with Immigration and that’s what’s happened. What we now see within the Immigration portfolio is a massive desertion by senior people.”

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Pezzullo gave the most detailed public explanation to date of the new department and its reimagined mission:

“The department will be responsible for immigration and citizenship; customs, including the operation of trade rules; the general system of Australia’s border controls to support law enforcement, counter-terrorism, quarantine and biosecurity, public health and community protection; and Australia’s offshore civil maritime security system. The new department will not necessarily be responsible for all relevant policy and legislative settings in these areas, but it will provide an integrated national capability to deliver border protection outcomes on behalf of a multitude of agencies, including at the state and territory level.”

He said the merger would help the department act on threatening people who “seek to penetrate borders”:

“They operate seamlessly and fluidly across administrative boundaries within the state, which represent potential gaps and seams, and points of vulnerability … In bringing together the functions of Immigration and Customs, we are pursuing the same logic, but on a grander scale.”

In a more recent published speech on Australia Day, Pezzullo told staff that “the mission of mass migration that was set for us in 1945 is long accomplished and should be declared so”, but he also tried to assuage fears that border security had taken precedence over managing migration:

“On occasions, at times of heightened threat such as caused by terrorism or pandemics, we will need to act as the gatekeepers and as necessary man the ramparts and protect our borders. But the overwhelming and predominate role of the department will be to act as the open conduits of Australia’s engagement with the world around us, whether for the purposes of trade, travel, or migration — for time limited purposes or for tomorrow’s settlers.”

There remain serious doubts among some Immigration staff that those words will ring true.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.