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Immigration Department under the spotlight -

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Immigration Department under the spotlight

Reporter: Heather Ewart

KERRY O'BRIEN: In the wake of the Vivian Alvarez Solon scandal, the embarrassing case of Cornelia
Rau's bungled detention and a swag of other legal claims building against them, Australia's
Immigration Department is a bureaucracy under siege. It's a department with wide-ranging powers to
detain and deport and its growing band of critics say that, since the Tampa incident, it's
developed a culture in need of exposure and overhaul, claims that are rejected by the Minister.
Sydney Catholic Cardinal George Pell was reported saying this week that the Government's
immigration regime was too tough. Minister Amanda Vanstone has so far resisted calls for
transparent public inquiries into the Rau and Solon cases, but the investigation by former Federal
Police Commissioner Mick Palmer into the Rau case, which was due to be completed by the end of this
month, has now been extended to take in other cases. And today, the minister, Senator Vanstone,
revealed to the 7.30 Report that she is considering softening the so-called compliance aspects of
the department's role. Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART: This is a government department under siege. It's being attacked in the Parliament,
in the media, and in courtrooms around the country. More so than ever before, since the wrongful
detention of Australian resident Cornelia Rau row and the deportation of Australian citizen Vivian
Alvarez Solon to the Philippines.

SENATOR ROBERT RAY, IMMIGRATION MINISTER, 1988-1990: They were told about these people and failed
to act. And guess what? Doesn't matter what the results of the Palmer inquiry is: all of them will
get their performance pay. That's the history of this Government.

SENATOR NICK BOLKUS, IMMIGRATION MINISTER, 1993-1996: Especially post-Tampa, there is a whole
spirit or a whole culture of lack of accountability. You know, this is not like any other
department.

MICHAEL CLOTHIER, IMMIGRATION LAWYER: I think it's in big trouble. We're finding every day as
immigration lawyers that there are stuff-ups which are not being fixed.

MARION LE, MIGRATION AGENT: The department now is just the butt of jokes. Continually people are
saying "Have you got your passport with you? Carry your passport all the time. Make sure you don't
don't have an accident, and if you've spoken in a foreign language when you were a child, train
yourself to speak only in English."

HEATHER EWART: That may not be as silly as it sounds. Certainly for one Chinese-born Australian
citizen who was held at Villawood Detention Centre for three days in 2002 after immigration
officials refused to believe his passport was at home. He is now planning to sue.

NICK McNALLY, IMMIGRATION LAWYER: It's not a case where his identity was unknown. He actually had
proof of his identity and still wasn't believed. It's a worry that anybody who...a foreign-born
citizen really needs to carry around a piece of ID more convincing than a driver's licence.

HEATHER EWART: Amid one damaging revelation after another, the Minister for Immigration, Amanda
Vanstone, offers a qualified defence of her department.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: We've got the biggest skilled immigration program
for donkey's years coming up and we do that very well. There have been some problems, particularly,
I think, in the areas that are most topical and subject to most criticism, where I do believe the
department's developed a somewhat defensive attitude, which has encouraged them to be less than
open to a reinterpretation of their assessments of either individual cases or policy initiatives.

HEATHER EWART: While the cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon are now being examined by
the government-appointed Palmer inquiry, behind closed doors, the fact is the department is now
very much in the public spotlight on all fronts. And the Government knows it. At the heart of the
debate is whether the Government's own policies and leadership have contributed to a malaise and
arrogance in the Immigration Department that goes to its highest levels.

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD: We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which
they come.

HEATHER EWART: It's election campaign messages like this one in 2001, along with Tampa and the kids
overboard affair, that critics argue has contributed to a climate of some immigration officers
feeling they can take a tougher line, if only to please the Government. And a power struggle has
ensued.

SENATOR NICK BOLKUS: I think at the moment, what's happened is that some of those darker forces in
the department are in control. I don't think they're getting the right message from government and
as a consequence, I think they're probably ruling the roost in a way that is really a negative for
decision-making in the department.

MARION LE: I deal with people in the department every day who are trying to do their jobs and do do
them properly, but I think that in the last few years, obviously there been a change in the focus
of the department.

MICHAEL CLOTHIER: I think the Department of Immigration have effectively become jailers. Their
focus has been taken right off the main game, namely making sure we get the right mix of migrants,
and has been totally distracted by this issue of having to keep people in mandatory detention.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: I don't think that that's necessarily the case at all. I mean, I'd say
first of all of course that Australia is very happy to have secure borders. We're very happy to
have a tremendous immigration system, and be the third largest resettler of people in need of
resettlement in the world.

HEATHER EWART: But in several private conversations with senior and middle-ranking immigration
officials, past and present, they talk of hard line attitudes filtering through the compliance and
detention section of the department, almost by osmosis, when constantly hearing the Government's
rhetoric. They talk of low morale, and the pressures of walking a tight rope, where you're supposed
to lock out undesirables and illegals, but also encourage skilled migrants. And they talk of a fear
of government retribution if they speak publicly. Many hark back to the experience of former
defence official Mike Scrafton, who last year spoke out publicly against the kids overboard affair
and copped a bucketing from the Government. But the Minister says her door is always open.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: I am the Minister for this department. It's my own view that the secretary
of the department would want to know where people have information that they think is useful, that
it be given to him, and I have faith in him that he would treat that appropriately. If people don't
want to go to the secretary of the department, they can always come to their minister.

HEATHER EWART: No bets on whether that happens. But the bottom line here is the Immigration
Department, in effect, has always come in two parts. One is concerned with migration and
settlement. The other with policing and border control, otherwise known as compliance. It's always
been something of a balancing act, as to which is more important. Veterans like John Menadue, who
headed the department in the Fraser years, says it was one of the hardest parts of the job.

JOHN MENADUE, IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT HEAD, 1980-1993: But I'm afraid this Government has tipped the
balance in favour of compliance, in favour of border control, in favour of policing, rather than
the humanitarian aspects which are so important within the department.

HEATHER EWART: As well, the department hasn't always been viewed by more ambitious public servants
as the best career path. It's not unusual for immigration officials to stick around in the same
area for 20 or 30 years.

JOHN MENADUE: There's not as much turnover, certainly in my day, as there was in other departments,
and I think it would probably be the case today.

HEATHER EWART: The head of the department, Bill Farmer, was unavailable for comment on this
assessment or any other. But in the case of Vivian Solon, there are mutterings that he should
consider resignation, especially since the error was discovered back in 2003 and wasn't reported to
the top.

SENATOR NICK BOLKUS: Bill Farmer's a decent bloke, a nice bloke, but in a situation like this, the
buck's got to stop somewhere.

MARION LE: Obviously, the problem is the management problem. If there are claims that the right
hand doesn't know what the left is doing or the higher management, the minister doesn't get to hear
of something that happens lower down, then that's clearly a management issue and should be dealt
with as such.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: My job is not to be a head-hunter and a blame apportioner at this stage.
My job is to find out what went wrong, get the facts, fix what went wrong and make sure it can't
happen again. Now that's my prime focus, whereas the prime focus I understand of the Opposition is
looking for heads to roll.

HEATHER EWART: But the government appears to looking for some solutions so that immigration
officers, especially in the area of compliance and detention, can apply a little more commonsense.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: There were certain changes made to the Migration Act, some in 1992, but
primarily in 1994, that may well have resulted in a change of culture and less flexibility being
available to departmental officers. So I just flag that I'm looking at that, that the structure of
the Act itself may need to have amendment to create more flexibility for officers that are there.

HEATHER EWART: Changes to the Act may be a first step forward, but the demands for a wider overhaul
of the Immigration Department are bound to continue.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Heather Ewart with that report featuring an unusually cautious Amanda.