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Pezzullo inspired by powerful post-war mandarins for Immigration’s new way

Mandarins should look to the example set by their powerful post-war predecessors, says Immigration and Border Protection secretary Michael Pezzullo, who further spelled out his long-term policy vision for the portfolio to go with its major machinery-of-government changes in a speech at the ANU last night.

The radically reformed department that is still emerging would invest heavily in policy research to continue developing its new approaches, he said, with a new strategic policy and planning division that would work with academia, think tanks and the private sector.

Since gaining his first secretarial appointment last year, Pezzullo has firmly put his stamp on DIBP — ruffling a few feathers — and taken a lead role in publicly redefining its mission and the tools it needs to accomplish it. Several observers have previously compared him to the powerful mandarins of old, in that articulating a broad policy vision for the future of immigration, linked to an overarching historical narrative, could be seen as a job more often done by the minister.

“The Department of Immigration of our collective memory will be no more, after 70 long years of service.”

It appears to be a comparison he relishes. In another significant speech, to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last December, Pezzullo compared the integration of Customs into the department and the creation of Australian Border Force to the building of the Defence Department by one of those steely post-war bureaucrats, Sir Arthur Tange. He continued that theme:

“The legendary secretaries of this era spoke their mind, possessed and wielded actionable ideas, formulated compelling policy options and implemented programs of national significance … They served with discretion, dependability and impact, and for those of us who are their successors as secretaries of the Commonwealth we would do well to be guided by their legacy,” Pezzullo said in last night’s lecture, organised by the Crawford School of Public Policy and the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation.

Among those greats, he added, was the “formidable and distinguished” Sir Roland, whose eponymous foundation offers PhD scholarships to current EL1 and EL2 staff in the APS with mentorship from senior executives, and is currently accepting applications.

Grand schemes for nation-building also featured in the first couple of decades after World War II, underpinned by new investment in policy research, and Pezzullo said the establishment of the ANU in 1945 and his department in 1946 were part of that story. DIBP’s new research push will make use of a long-standing relationship between the two and go beyond it to “provide government with first class strategic policy advice, and options”.

“Compared with the department that was established in 1945, in effect, we no longer predominantly run a permanent migration program. We have become a border entry and control agency.”

“To that end, I’ve established a strategic policy and planning division within the department and have also decided to revitalise and reinvigorate the department’s research program,” Pezzullo explained. “This will be so across the department’s increased remit, which from July this year will cover immigration, citizenship, trade and customs, and maritime security.

“We’ll work closely with other agencies, especially the Treasury and other departments of state such as Social Services, Employment, Education and Training, and Industry and Science, as well as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, along with academia, think tanks and the private sector.”

Pezzullo repeated arguments he has made in previous speeches that “the original mission of 1945 to build the population base has been long accomplished” and said the way most people viewed the department was outdated.

“In the world of globalised travel, investment and labour mobility, the art of tapping into the resource of global human capital no longer consists of the slow and steady building up of the population base. It requires a strategy for attracting those in the ready-made global pool of skilled workers as well as travellers, students and business people, the latter with money to invest.”

In coming years, Australia will soon be issuing five million visas annually to visitors, temporary residents and permanent migrants. “What this will mean for the foreseeable future, is that at any one time the total number of non-citizens in Australia on a temporary basis at any moment of time, will amount to about 1.9 million people, and growing, which is 10 times the current annual permanent migration planning level,” he said.

“Compared with the department that was established in 1945, in effect, we no longer predominantly run a permanent migration program. We have become a border entry and control agency.”

While most people associate immigration with the old “black and white photos of European migrants”, Pezzullo said “a new reality has been steadily emerging, in the shadows of that which we used to do and which is fixed in collective memory”.

He said immigration and border protection should not be seen as “dichotomous and opposed concepts” and that there was a need to “reframe our thinking” about them:

“Today there is a remorseless tendency toward ever-growing trade and cross-border investment flows, globalised networks of production, distribution and consumption, and ever more voluminous and rapid mobility of people for travel, work and migration purposes.”

Borders should not be seen as “a cost and time imposition” but as “a network of global connection points” that mediate between flows of people and goods on the one hand, and “the inherent territoriality and capacity for inclusion which necessarily comes with state sovereignty” on the other, according to Pezzullo.

Concluding the speech, the scholarly secretary spoke in some detail about the machinery of government changes, linking them to his view of the new immigration paradigm.

“The Department of Immigration of our collective memory will be no more, after 70 long years of service,” he said, adding that the new department would have a very different mandate.

“Our new ‘flow’ model of the border is in fact already emerging based on our ever-improving capabilities for real-time data fusion and analytics, intelligence based profiling and targeting of high-risk border movements, and rapid response enforcement and interdiction. Such capabilities will allow us to minimise our interventions in relation to low risk border movements, and concentrate our firepower where it may make the most material difference.”

Anticipating a need for the capability to rapidly process large numbers of visa applications, Pezzullo said the department would need to operate more like “banks and other large scale, high volume enterprises, using “advanced techniques, technologies and tradecraft” to manage risk.

“We will need to become more agile and adept in dealing with national security, law enforcement and community protection risks, in near real-time.”

The DIBP boss repeated that in order to strengthen protection of the community from risks posed by foreigners, staff would be expected to say “no” more often than they do now — “where circumstances warrant and within the law” — based on new intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities and closer relationships with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

“This is not to say that the shutters are coming down,” he added. “Far from it. The overall flow of visitors and migrants will only continue to increase … What we will focus on in the months and years ahead is the quality of our decisions in favour of the rights of the community, while still delivering the economic and social benefits of immigration.”

Before taking a few questions — including two from an ABC journalist about a group of Vietnamese asylum seekers reportedly taken back to Vietnam by the Navy and the Cambodia resettlement plan which he refused to address — Pezzullo concluded where he began, asserting that the current crop of mandarins faces no less a challenge than his post-war heroes.

“Ultimately the test of public service is the platform that is left for the next generation, and the others that follow,” he told the audience. “Do we have today the courage, the wits and the presence of mind to think about the platform for those that might address this university in seven decades time, when most of us will be long gone or in our twilight years? I can assure you that in my department we are very committed to thinking in those terms and building something that will prove to be of enduring value.”

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.