The view from Billinudgel

Dutton’s double standards
The au pair controversy may lead some to ask if the minister has any standards at all


Powerful and sensitive weapons need to be handled with extreme care if they are not to harm the user as well as the intended victim. Ministerial intervention is a powerful and sensitive weapon.

In any democratic system, it is a necessary and desirable one: elected ministers must always be the ultimate arbiters, which is why the bureaucrats refer to them, somewhat ruefully, as their political masters.

But the weapon cannot be used recklessly or capriciously; the ability of a politician to override the considered advice of their department must always be treated as an exception, and must also always be capable of justification if challenged, as it may be.

And nowhere is this problem more fraught than in the area of immigration. The Commonwealth has a top-of-the-pile role in the administration of services to the public, but, as a result of the Constitution, the vast bulk of them – education, health and most of welfare – are dealt with in practical terms by the states. Thus whatever conflicts that emerge are usually at arm’s length from Canberra, which is just as the feds like it. If their constituents lobby for favours, they can be instantly duck-shoved across to the next level of government. Immigration is the exception to this rule, where the buck stops firmly with the federal minister and their department.

As the now-former minister Peter Dutton says, there is a constant stream of submissions from the public and from their representatives – whether advocates, log rollers or private members just passing the messages on – demanding that unfavourable decisions be overturned.

Most of these decisions, of course, are not overturned; the vast majority of times, the bureaucrats get it right – or at least right enough to satisfy the minister. And those making appeals who get the verdict they were hoping for are unlikely to complain, which means the minister gets a private pat on the back and can get on with their real work.

But if, as in the case of Dutton and immigration under him, the “real work” involved a ruthlessness bordering on brutality where legitimate asylum seekers were concerned. Against this backdrop, it is hardly sensible to overrule departmental officials’ decisions regarding the detention of two European women, and to then argue that this intervention was made on the grounds of “Australia as a humane and generous society”.

That there is at least a suspicion that helping out mates may have been a factor has led to accusations of cronyism, if not actual corruption. At the very least, Dutton is guilty of double standards – although the hapless stranded on Nauru and Manus may ask if he has any standards at all.

Even before the au pair controversy was revealed, it was obvious that the amalgamation of border security and immigration was running into difficulties, which is presumably one reason Scott Morrison has hived immigration off to David Coleman, who can be relied on to keep his head down.

So Dutton can continue to be Darth Vader in the larger job, once he gets through the current brouhaha – which he will; he may be rightly discredited by the voters and even by his former commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg, but still has plenty of protection in the party room.

And yet the fact that he reckons he is being white-anted, by both his own department and by his own side, means there will still be tensions ahead. It may be time for ministerial discretion to be rather more discreet.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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