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Agile leadership trumps long service in new Border Protection team

The new generation of senior leaders in charge of the consolidated Immigration and Border Protection portfolio were chosen for their diverse experience in multiple departments, over those with long careers in either of the two entities that have been taken apart and put back together as a new mega-department.

Secretary Michael Pezzullo said “upwards of a dozen” senior executive service members had decided to leave the department since he was elevated to the top job from his previous post as Customs CEO, in response to a question from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

Of those, he said a number “probably in the single-digit to low double-digit[s]” had resigned from the Australian Public Service altogether, rather than apply for a transfer, and said the department would try to confirm the numbers for Hanson-Young by the end of the day.

In a long opening statement Pezzullo informed the legal and constitutional affairs committee that the next time they saw him and his officers, they would represent “a new Department of Immigration and Border Protection” with “expanded responsibilities” for immigration, citizenship, customs, border protection and maritime security. The Customs and Border Protection Service would be “dis-established” on June 30, and replaced with the Australian Border Force the following day.

The powerful new mega-department, inspired by the United States Department of Homeland Security and charged with administering perhaps the most contentious, politically sensitive area of the federal government, aims to become more than the sum of its parts.

As a sign of its changing focus, its new website will be border.gov.au, which will replace the existing immi.gov.au and customs.gov.au websites.

“The new department and the Australian Border Force will require a blended leadership team which has extensive experience across a number of departments and agencies rather than lengthy single agency careers in either Immigration or Customs,” Pezzullo said. “To this end the CEO [of Customs, Roman Quaedvlieg] and I are working with our current SES leaders to ensure that they have the skills, aptitude and competencies that will be required of leaders in the new organisation. If they do not, we will work with them on career transition plans and we will do so on an appropriately sensitive basis.”

The current SES group have experience in Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence, Education, Employment, Human Services, Finance, the Federal Police, the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Signals Directorate, and more are needed.

The department has previously denied persistent rumours that many senior staff left as they weren’t willing to support the direction it was taking. Yesterday, Pezzullo was willing to concede some had left due to the significant changes to the department’s original remit and approach.

“Some people might have decided, for their own reasons — perhaps their own personal values — that they might not feel comfortable working at an agency that, for instance, has a border force component that will be armed,” he said.

“I know several officers have confided in me as we have undertaken what I would consider to be very sensitive discussions about what might be shorthandedly described as ‘future fit’ where they have said — and these are entirely valid and legitimate personal and emotional responses — ‘I joined the department X number of years ago … and we had a particular remit, we had a particular approach that we took. This is all changing. I was thinking of the next phase of my life and my career in any event. I think it’s time for me to move on to other things.’ And that has been perfectly respected and supported.”

He added some SES staff had been put on “formal performance notice” and that DIBP was still recruiting more high flyers, having just completed an SES Band 2 recruitment round with some from Defence starting work this week. The appraisal process was ongoing and applied to all SES officers, he said, pledging to give Hanson-Young the details of how many jumped ship at what point in the process.

Professional development for all

The new DIBP will also be investing a lot in professional development for all of its staff and while the boss wants senior executives with diverse experience, he has less room for generalists lower down the ranks.

“Put simply: we cannot afford to have on our books generalists who have dabbled in critical functions such as intelligence, investigations, international policy and engagement, strategic policy and planning, and operational planning and management,” the secretary explained in his very long opening remarks. “We will both recruit officers who have significant professional experience and qualifications in these and other fields and retrain and develop our existing staff.”

Military and police secondments will continue to bolster the ABF, with a rear admiral seconded from the Navy to head up its Maritime Border Command, a major general to head the Operation Sovereign Border’s joint agency task force, and a Federal Police assistant commissioner to head Border Force’s investigations division.

“The new department and the ABF will face significant challenges from the first day of their existence,” said Pezzullo, referring to a growing number of visa applications, and the attendant “national security, law enforcement and community protection risks” that would require “new systems, processes and techniques and commensurate training” for staff.

“We will need to be increasingly prepared to operate more like banks and other large-scale, high-volume enterprises dealing with masses of data, processing transactions rapidly and using advanced techniques, technologies and trade craft to discover and deal with risk,” he continued.

“We will also need to step up our law enforcement efforts, in partnership with fellow federal, state and territory agencies, to deal with breaches of visa conditions by such a large and increasing number of non-citizens who will be living, working and studying amongst us.

“Additionally, we will need to lift our efforts against the exploitation of temporary workers, where we have seen alleged instances of the underpayment of wages and poor working conditions, as well as the scourge of human trafficking, including for the purposes of sexual servitude and other crimes against temporary visitors and workers. New powers and capabilities will assist greatly in these endeavours.”

Asylum seekers on boats AKA ‘Illegal Maritime Arrivals’

Pezzullo then moved on to the issue of asylum seekers that arrive by boat, or “illegal maritime arrivals” as he is required to refer to them. He said resolving the cases of the 30,000 people the department has detained in Australia or on bridging visas was a “significant challenge” that would be met with the help of temporary protection visas and “safe haven enterprise visas or SHEVs”.

Helping them fit into Australian communities would be an even more difficult task, he warned.

“I cannot stress to this committee strongly enough the challenges that will be faced in ensuring that IMAs, whether they are here for three years or for greater or lesser periods, are able to integrate into their communities and do not become a source of social dislocation and alienation,” said the secretary.

“Australia has never faced such a challenge before, and we will need to work collaboratively across government agencies and civil society to ensure that the attendant risks are managed as well as they can be.”

The humanitarian intake will stay at 13,750 people in 2015-16 with a minimum of 11,000 places offered to people overseas, and not rise until 2017-18, when it goes up to 16,250, rising again the next year to 18.750.

“Australia remains one of the top three refugee resettlement countries in the world, along with the US and Canada, something of which we should be very proud,” Pezzullo said.

He also pledged to do “more … in relation to detention assurance and oversight” once his new organisation is in place.

“Suffice to say, when serious allegations in relation to incidents which had occurred in the regional processing centre on Nauru were examined by Mr Philip Moss late last year, I was alerted, at the outset of my time as secretary, to the requirement to ensure rigorous scrutiny and oversight of detention operations.”

The new secretary also repeated the disputed notion that “we do not exercise effective legal control” over the detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which meant oversight was undertaken by their respective governments with only “advice and assistance” from Australia.

He also made the odd claim that “appropriate Australian accountability for the provision of specified detention services in those centres … is done by way of agreement between sovereign states”.

“In terms of detention operations within Australia, where of course we do exercise effective legal control, it has been my view from day one that the better practice is to separate detention, assurance and oversight from the delivery of detention services and operations,” Pezzullo went on.

“To this end, the assurance and oversight function will remain in the department after 1 July 2015 while operations and delivery will be undertaken by the ABF.

“This does not signify a lack of trust; it is a sign of maturity and transparency that such functions are separated. I will be specifically assisted in my duties by the recent establishment of the Child Protection Panel, of which more no doubt will be discussed during these proceedings.”

The new department’s vastly expanded mission, complementing the government’s ever-growing focus on national security and that of our English-speaking allies, cannot be accomplished without “significant and, at times, stressful reform and change” according to the DIBP boss.

“As I move about the department and meet with staff, I am confident that they are up for the challenge, whether they are long-serving Immigration or Customs officers or whether they are new recruits or recent transferees from other departments and agencies. Like all Australians who are faced with a challenging environment and tough, stressful tasks, if we give our staff the leadership, the tools and the support that they need, they will get the job done.”

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.