Would you work at the Department of Immigration?

Would you work for the Department of Immigration?

Bernard Keane today called the department “utterly morally bankrupt” and “couldn’t see how anyone in good conscience” could work there.

More acutely, today’s First Dog on the Moon cartoon highlighted four prominent real life examples of what many would consider beyond the pale in terms of work duties, prefaced by the following quotes:

“You want to contribute to the glorious defence of our nation’s borders, to protect our wide brown land from tiny boats full of unarmed women and children. Good on you!”

“Simply complete this multiple choice questionnaire and we will determine your suitability for working in what is basically an enormous remorseless bureaucracy tacked on to a sinister program to systematically punish and dehumanise the desperate and the broken.”

Hearing about the sexual abuse allegations on Nauru sickens me. The Australian government and public, no matter how we choose to wipe our hands, has responsibility for people taken to other countries. This responsibility grows inversely to the capacity of those countries to provide adequate care for people. This is the real world result of policy played through a strictly political prism.


Good people do work at the Department of Immigration ‘in good conscience’. I know a few and I’ve been told of more.

What happens if these people leave? They are replaced by someone who will perform poorly and without the daily struggle to try and improve the outcomes of people who are stuck in a real life nightmare. It might be something as small as replying to emails in a timely manner to ensure something gets done. It might be something much larger like questioning the why or the how of an operational matter. When the motivation to do that act is lost, when good people leave, the environment descends even further.

I happen to agree in part with Bernard Keane. When I was at the department, I made the personal choice to not work in the detention divisions. I’m not a martyr because of this and I didn’t shout it from the rooftops. But I didn’t feel I could perform those positions, both in a personal capacity and in line with my employment conditions.

Despite this, the people I had the most respect for were those who did take on those positions with clear eyes and a commitment to try and improve things where they could. A case manager who took each initial refugee interview seriously and on their merits despite hearing the a similar story 40 times in that week. A detention centre manager who provided pastoral care for their staff instead of creating a vitriolic environment, that led directly to dangerous conditions for both staff and migrants. An operational support staffer stationed on Nauru not because of the travel allowance but because they care deeply about what is at stake for young children.

These people will never be publicly recognised for doing their job effectively. That’s part of being a public servant.

It’s easy to say everyone should perform that way but the reality is that does not occur. Do not think for a second that there is a limit to bad behaviour. Environments can always be worse and what seemed bad last year quickly recedes into history. Think about how asylum policy has evolved and you can see how this works.

And I haven’t even discussed the majority of staff who work in roles that actively generate positive economic, social and cultural outcomes for Australia. There are over a thousand visa processing officers, greasing the wheels of our skilled, family and humanitarian migration programs. There are people working on the labour market, student visas, research and evaluation and a host of other matters. In this group of people you will likely find some of the strongest opponents of the current asylum policies anywhere in Australia.

Decent people can disagree on these questions. Personal experience and values will shape an individual decision.

I’ll end with this. From my understanding, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is going to have over 12,000 staff come 1 July 2015. While some have left recently, particularly senior managers, I’d argue the department needs every single good staff member to both mitigate the worst effects of our asylum policies and improve the margins, the space where most public servants do the majority of their work. In addition, the people who create and support Australia’s excellent modern tradition of mass migration need to be there.

(Endnote: Initially I thought “It’s easy to be a journo and throw these quips around” but this is exactly the wrong type of argument people should prosecute, particularly if they work at the department. The media, at its best, provide the single greatest check on security and asylum policy. Perhaps I simply wish more nuance could be had in a public discussion that is largely nuance free.)

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