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Immigration responds: no revolt against secretary on direction

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection flatly denies claims that senior staff — including three deputy secretaries — have left the organisation because they were unwilling to support its new direction under the leadership of secretary Michael Pezzullo (pictured).

The claims were made by several credible sources who spoke to The Mandarin, but the suggestion that a significant number of staff are unhappy with many aspects of the merger process, the new leadership team and the new direction has circulated for months.

More information about the changing structure of the organisation, which has merged with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, will be released later this month in a “Plan for Integration”, an update on the blueprint released last November.

A spokesperson confirmed that “a small number of senior executive staff have taken up opportunities at other agencies”. While the department did not confirm exactly which senior executives have left and whether anybody is currently acting in their roles, it didn’t deny deputy secretaries Elizabeth Cosson, Wendy Southern and Mark Cormack have all departed. The Mandarin understands another two division heads, including the chief lawyer, and at least two branch heads have also left.

The DIBP top structure shown on the departmental website has been updated this week and, at the time of writing, no longer listed Cormack but did still show Southern remaining as a deputy secretary, and indicated Vicki Parker was first assistant secretary running the legal division. Questions on whether Parker is still in the role, and how many senior executives have either left or communicated their intention to leave the department, were not answered.

Organisational charts will be updated “in due course”, a spokesperson said. They told The Mandarin by email:

“It is common for senior executives in the APS to transfer from one agency to another. The senior executives concerned left the department with the best wishes and full support of the secretary. The secretary announced their departures to all staff in December 2014 and thanked them for their very significant contributions.

“Any suggestion that senior staff have left because they ‘weren’t willing to support the direction that the Department was taking’ is false.

“The secretary announced to all SES of the DIBP and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service that as part of the integration of the department and the service and the creation of the Australian Border Force, there will be a SES transition process. This included the assessment of SES and allocation of SES accountabilities and responsibilities according to new roles for the Department and the Australian Border Force. SES undertook a similar review process to that which occurred in Customs and Border Protection over the past 18 months.

“As previously announced, the Plan for Integration will be released later this month and will outline further changes to the department’s structure as we move toward the establishment of a new department on 1 July 2015.”

In response to an enquiry from our sister website Crikey, the department has today confirmed new deputy secretary appointments:

“The Secretary and the CEO have announced a number of senior leadership appointments. Rachel Noble will commence in the role of Deputy Secretary Policy Group, Cindy Briscoe will be Deputy Secretary Immigration Status Resolution Group and Michael Outram will perform the role of Deputy Chief Executive Officer Border Operations Group. Peter Vardos, previously Deputy Secretary Client Services Group, will lead a major review of the Client Services Decision Support Framework.”

Outram is an assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, heading up the protection division, and begins at DIBP on March 9. Briscoe was national director of the Customs support division, while Noble was previously the service’s chief information officer; both commenced with DIBP on February 16.

Comment has been sought from the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, who took over from Scott Morrison in a December cabinet reshuffle.

In an investigation widely circulated in Canberra on Monday, The Mandarin quoted a number of department insiders and former senior staffers expressing concern over the talent drain and a shift in culture under the Abbott government and since the merger was announced.

A “culture of fear” now pervades Immigration, according to some, with restricted flows of information and unusual edicts such as to address certain staff members by formal titles rather than first names.

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, sources say, 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.

More at The Mandarin: Feathers ruffled: how hawks took over the Immigration nest

Correction: The original version of this story stated that Michael Outram “was previously” an assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. He is currently still in the role and commences at DIBP on March 9.

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.