February 2018


Dutton’s dark victory

By James Button
Image of Peter Dutton

Peter Dutton. © Stefan Postles / Getty Images

The minister, Pezzullo and the demise of Immigration

It’s a fine December morning in the northern Canberra suburb of Belconnen, and in the cafe opposite the Department of Home Affairs a crowd watches the busy barista. His black T-shirt says “Weapon of a security warrior”, and as he calls out names for coffees he reads “Walter White”, and theatrically rolls his eyes. Men and women wearing lanyards return to the office with their coffees and that unhurried public service walk that suggests no ripple will ever disturb the smooth surface of Australian administrative life. Nothing except, perhaps, the large sign behind the front desk that they pass before touching their security passes at the electronic gate: “Australia’s current National Terrorism Threat Level is PROBABLE.”

A day earlier, this was the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, but now it is called the Department of Home Affairs, and I am here to interview its head, Secretary Michael Pezzullo. The name change followed the swearing-in of Peter Dutton as minister for home affairs. The former Queensland policeman, who also remains minister for immigration and border protection, takes charge of a vast portfolio that will encompass the federal police, ASIO, Australian Border Force, immigration, counterterrorism and emergency management. Announcing the change with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in July, Dutton said that having stopped the boats the government was now bent on beating back the twin scourges of terrorism and organised crime, on securing the border, and keeping Australia safe.

Debate about the mega-department has been intense. No published official review recommended its creation. Even cabinet ministers reportedly questioned whether national security imperatives warranted the centralisation of so much power under one minister. Was this Turnbull’s bid to keep Dutton, his most likely rival, at ease and at bay?

But one aspect of the new portfolio has escaped attention. For the first time since 1945 no Commonwealth government department has the word “immigration” in its name. About 7.5 million people have come to Australia since then and the permanent migration program is as large as ever, running at more than 200,000 people a year, alongside a temporary migration program that is at least three times bigger. Yet in all the speeches and official statements justifying the creation of Home Affairs, immigration barely gets a mention.

It’s a historic shift. For nearly 70 years, the immigration department managed the selection, arrival and settlement of migrants and refugees into Australia. Under the department’s model of “managed migration”, newcomers were not just waved through at the airport and waved goodbye, as they are in some countries. The department arranged English classes and access to health care and welfare. It helped people to find housing, schools and jobs, to learn how to become a citizen. Over decades of integrating millions of new arrivals, in the face of much controversy and criticism, it built a fiercely proud internal culture and reason to exist. To cite the title of its 2010–11 annual report, it was “nation-building”.

In 2013, Tony Abbott’s new Coalition government quietly began gutting the department. It moved the Adult Migrant English Program, which provides migrants and refugees up to 510 hours of free English tuition, to the Department of Industry. (It is now in the Department of Education and Training.) It gave the Department of Social Services responsibility for both multicultural policy and settlement services, in which about 15,000 refugees who enter under the humanitarian program each year are paired with case managers and taught how to find their way in Australia.

These decisions pained many public servants in Immigration, because they severed their links with migrant communities and their ability to use what they learned from them to advise government. Perhaps even worse, though, was the department’s change of name from Immigration and Citizenship to Immigration and Border Protection. To these public servants it suggested a whole new philosophy: a move from planning the nation’s future to policing its frontier. Not starting new lives but stopping the boats.

Then the man who had helped to stop the boats became their boss. Pezzullo, a hawkish and military-minded former Defence bureaucrat, was appointed head of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service in 2012. A year later he oversaw the Operation Sovereign Borders taskforce that over four years has turned back 31 boats carrying 771 people, ending the fourth and largest wave of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by sea over the past 40 years.

In May 2014, the government announced that Customs and parts of Immigration would merge to form a new agency within the portfolio: the Australian Border Force, a turbo-charged operation with police-style uniforms, sharper data and intelligence, and more guns. Later that year, Pezzullo became head of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Two months ago he became head of Home Affairs, a department he almost certainly helped to devise.

Pezzullo is a complex mix of ambition, charm, belligerence and brilliance, both admired and loathed. A son of working-class Italians, he advised Opposition Leader Kim Beazley for four years, a period that included the Tampa election, Labor’s dark hour, and he wrote the 2009 Defence White Paper that reportedly enraged China with its confrontational stance. He’s a grand strategist of war and statecraft, who reads Hegel, Hobbes and Henry Kissinger and doesn’t mind if you know it. He is a man seized with his mission to steer the ship of state through the roiling tides of history.

On taking the job, in late 2014, Pezzullo took a cleaver to the structures, culture and identity of the old immigration department. He put protégées from Defence into top jobs. He introduced new dress codes and drug and alcohol tests, and told officials the department had to get much tougher; the “care bears”, as he later called them, would have to go. He implied the culture was stuck in the past and said he was making changes that could never be reversed. Senior employees, many of whom had worked in Immigration all their careers, rose up in quiet rage. Thirty members of the Senior Executive Service, more than a quarter of the total, left the department. It was an exodus unmatched in the public service in a generation.

Public servants don’t put themselves in the media, so an upheaval of this sort is like an underground atomic explosion. There’s no mushroom cloud, nothing to see, yet the effect can be seismic all the same. I spoke to 25 former public servants who had worked in the department over the past 40 years, 14 of whom left in the flight that followed Pezzullo’s arrival. Some are named in this piece, some preferred not to be. Most say that the changes being introduced under Peter Dutton risk destroying a system that has enabled Australia to absorb huge numbers of immigrants without evident difficulty. A former deputy secretary, Peter Hughes, wrote in a post on the blog of former Immigration secretary John Menadue: “Our one-stop shop has been one of the secrets of our success. Why discard it?”

Pezzullo’s public statements suggest he is no less in favour of immigration than these public servants. Nevertheless, he has said that a “revolution” is underway in immigration policy, one that will challenge policy-makers as much as the creation of the postwar migration program did in 1945. Accordingly, he said in 2015,“the department of immigration of our collective memory and imagination will be no more”.

Much more is at stake than a bureaucratic disagreement over the best way to deliver the migration program. Why has immigration disappeared not only from public service nomenclature but also from public view? What explains the “spooky silence”, as journalist Laura Tingle put it in a column last year, that surrounds population policy? Are we still an immigration nation or are we having doubts?

These questions touch on some of the most contentious issues of the day, including African youth crime, the integration of Muslims and the rise of China, not to mention the 1000 asylum seekers still in tormented limbo on Manus Island and Nauru. They also reach back in time, to the start of the postwar immigration program, what we have learned from our history, and what we might have lost.

Immigration officials deal in human beings, and decide their fate. Enacting government policy, they choose how many people, and what kind, will become Australian. Last financial year the migration intake was 183,000. About one in five was Indian, one in six Chinese, one in 10 British. Most were skilled and young. Of 16,000 additional people chosen through the refugee and humanitarian program in 2015–16, most came from Syria, Iraq, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

Immigration officials organise citizenship ceremonies, in which newcomers pledge an oath to their new country, the mayor hands them a native tree to symbolise their new roots, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. Officials can also enter your house or business with a special warrant issued under the Migration Act if they reasonably suspect the presence of an “unlawful non-citizen”. If your visa is invalid, they can detain you and deport you.

For a department with such impact, though, it lacked prestige. John Nieuwenhuysen, the first director of the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research, once wrote how public servants liked to compare different departments to food. Foreign Affairs was smoked salmon, Treasury aged prime fillet steak. Immigration was cold pig’s ear.

That’s because, while it always had an important policy role, Immigration was seen as “operational”. Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, Foreign Affairs and Finance are all five minutes’ walk from Parliament House. All look down on the visa-sorters stuck out at Belconnen, far from power, neighbours of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Few public service departments attract as much scrutiny and hostility as Immigration. It is the most litigated against, as people appeal adverse visa decisions to the Federal Court. It has been the most subject to Freedom of Information requests, and it is perhaps the most investigated. Between 1992 and 2011 its network of detention centres was subject to 74 inquiries from parliamentary committees and bodies such as the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations.

In 2005 the Labor Party called for a royal commission into the department, after investigations showed it had detained an Australian permanent resident, Cornelia Rau, for 10 months and deported an Australian citizen, Vivian Alvarez Solon. Robert Manne wrote in this magazine of its “diseased culture”; George Newhouse, a lawyer for the two women, said its bungling destroyed lives. Around that time, one of its senior staff, John Moorhouse, told an international conference of immigration officials that they had no idea how much the department was loathed by the Australian people.

But there’s another side to the department: the pride of people who have worked there. Migration officers tell stories of being hailed on an Australian street by strangers to whom they had granted visas while working overseas. At the Christmas function, the secretary of the day would reliably tell them: never forget, you are building this nation.

More than many, this was a department of “lifers”, people who joined young and stayed long. “It was like a family,” Deirdre Russack told me. “That can be good and bad; mostly it was good.” Keith Stodden, who worked overseas selecting migrants, said in the 1980s: “It was like a religious vocation to do the sort of work I did in the department.”

Bill Farmer, who became secretary in 1998, remembers the all-staff meeting he called on his first day. An employee stood and asked, “What is your view on the balance between facilitation and control?”

To outsiders it’s a bizarre question; to insiders it’s the one that counts. On behalf of government and the people, the department balanced inclusion and exclusion. The balance determined the organisation’s structure: some branches selected and settled migrants and refugees, or promoted citizenship; others handled removals or detention – what was once “compliance” and is now known as “integrity”, a softer term for a harder world. Staff called these two faces “Disneyland” and “The Dark Side”, but if they were asked to move from one to the other they usually accepted. Not everyone could come to Australia – the goal was to strike a balance between welcome and control. James Jupp, an academic specialist in immigration, described the department as a “pastor and policeman”.

In the 1980s, writer Harry Martin interviewed many of the officials who selected migrants in the first 40 years of the program. He heard how a survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp described the migration officers who met him at the boat in Fremantle as angels. He also heard about the migration officer in Greece who liked to fail people on language grounds by pointing to the ceiling and saying, “What colour is the floor?” To capture the power these officers exercised over people’s lives, Martin called his modest, remarkable book Angels and Arrogant Gods.

From day one, this duality has been part of who we are. Settler societies get to curate their populations much more than others do, and Australia, a huge island in a wide sea, has been free to pursue this advantage more aggressively than just about any other nation. Geography also made us fear the hordes to the north who surely wanted to come for our wealth and boundless plains, much as the first British settlers had done. When the Chinese came for gold in the 1850s, the Australian colonies enacted some of the world’s first anti-immigration legislation.

In the 1880s, Victoria built forts along its coast to counter a feared Russian invasion. In the 1920s, Prime Minister Billy Hughes fretted that “surplus millions” of Asians would soon be on the move or face starvation. “Where can they find a country as inviting and as vulnerable as Australia? And if they come here, what shall we do? To whom shall we turn for help?” In 1999, when a boat of Chinese would-be immigrants somehow fetched up on a beach near Kempsey in New South Wales, two Sydney tabloids carried the same headline: “INVADED”.

Above all, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was a founding and defining law of the new Australian Commonwealth. Non-Europeans could not join the nation; it would be British and white. The Act also barred “any idiot or insane person” and anyone likely to become “a charge on the public”.

All this history was in the mind of the first immigration minister, Labor’s Arthur Calwell, when he rose in parliament in August 1945, days before the end of World War Two, to announce the postwar immigration program.

Calwell was speaking to a population of seven million, mistrustful of strangers, keenly aware that they had narrowly escaped being invaded by the Japanese. They were overwhelmingly native-born, of British and Irish stock, and committed, as was Calwell, to keeping the country white. Non-Europeans – apart from Indigenous Australians, who were not counted in the Census until 1967 – numbered about 175,000 people, 2.5 per cent of the population.

Calwell began by saying immigration was a matter of life or death for the nation. The war had shown that “we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers”. From this alarming beginning, Calwell sought only to reassure. Increasing the birth rate was the top priority, but it would not be enough.

He then laid down the seven principles of the migration program. Its prime goal was to ensure national security and economic growth. Second, the rate of population growth would be steady – Calwell later described it as “scientific”. Third, while the change would be great, people need not fear, because the government would maintain firm control of the program. Fourth, it would carefully choose migrants, to ensure they were “sound in health”, of good character, and not “a charge on the community”. Fifth, if migrants worked hard and contributed to society, and were determined to become “good Australians”, they were welcome. Sixth, Australians also had responsibilities: to welcome the newcomers, and to not ostracise them and “then blame them for segregating themselves and forming foreign communities”.

The seventh principle was the most important. “Any immigration plan can succeed only if it has behind it the support and the goodwill of the Australian people.”

Calwell’s speech proposed a grand bargain between government, the native-born and the newcomers. Its principles and language, which Coalition governments seamlessly adopted, shape Australia to this day.

Calwell was not entirely frank with the public, though. He later promised that for every continental European 10 Britons would be chosen. But he knew even then that Britain alone could not furnish the numbers Australia needed. In a note he wrote in 1944 to the then treasurer, Ben Chifley, Calwell said he was determined to build “a heterogeneous society where … an Italian background would be as acceptable as a Greek, a Dutch or any other”. A man of many parts, who put quotas on Jewish immigrants and was known above all for a racist joke, “Two Wongs don’t make a White”, Calwell taught himself Mandarin and was feted by Australia’s Chinese and Jewish communities. It was Calwell who coined the term, “New Australians”, that would denote migrants for the next 30 years. People would come to mock it, yet across those decades in which Britain, France, Germany and Holland accepted large populations of foreigners but only as guest workers, not citizens, Calwell’s term contained a promise: from day one, you are Australian.

The immigration department ingrained Calwell’s principles in its walls and quiet floors. Its officers went looking for migrants who were young, strong, fit and attractive. At Calwell’s command, the first continental Europeans, refugees from the Baltic States, were picked for their blond hair and good looks. The officers also checked under the men’s arms, to make sure none sported the SS tattoo. The message to Australians was clear: don’t worry, we’ve got this in hand.

A vast, government-inspired effort, unlike any other in the world, was undertaken to create harmony between old and new Australians. The Good Neighbour Movement, managed by the department, invited volunteers to meet migrants at the docks, show them local shops and banks, take them home for tea, and teach them how to plant lawns made of hardy grass. A formidable propaganda machine churned out a monthly newspaper, The Good Neighbour, and newsreels, films, articles and endless case studies celebrating migration to Australia.

British migrants kept coming, but, step by step, from the Balts and Dutch to Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Turks, the source countries moved farther from Big Ben. In 1966, just 25 years after Prime Minister John Curtin promised to keep Australia as “a citadel for the British-speaking race”, the Holt government created a visa for skilled non-European migrants. In the 1970s, Gough Whitlam formally renounced the last vestiges of White Australia, and Malcolm Fraser took the hardest and bravest step by accepting more than 50,000 Indochinese refugees in his time in office (nearly 200,000 Indochinese people came between 1975 and 1995).

From there, the wellsprings spread ever wider, across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas. “The radical transformation of Australia’s ethnic composition is something of a record on the global scale,” said sociologist Jerzy Zubrzycki, who advised the Fraser government on its multiculturalism policies, in a speech to the department in 1994. Zubrzycki noted that similar shifts had taken six generations in the United States, three in Canada and Brazil, but only one and a half in Australia, “and on a greater proportional scale”.

The change provoked flare-ups of public concern, very occasionally of violence, but nearly always on a smaller scale than seen elsewhere. Polling by the Scanlon Foundation, Australia’s most authoritative source analysing attitudes to migration, shows that for the past 10 years a majority of Australians have supported immigration, while in many European countries opposition to it runs at around 70 per cent. A 2008 report by researchers Genevieve Heard, Siew-Ean Khoo and Bob Birrell found that once migrant groups reached the third generation a large majority of their members married outside the group, mostly to people of Australian or Anglo-Celtic ancestry. The researchers concluded “that social integration is proceeding with each successive generation”.

The story has been well told, the reasons for success well recited. There is the stability bequeathed by Anglo-Saxon institutions, the magic pudding economy, the factories, schools, offices and sporting clubs that enabled people to mix and move ahead, the ignorance of history and ancient hatred, the naked democracy of the beach, the love of food, the sprawl of the suburbs, the natural curiosity of humans to know each other – all merged under the sun to form the lazy genius of multicultural Australia.

But there’s another reason. It didn’t happen simply because Aussies are easygoing. It happened because of a massive government effort to make it work. Why does Australia have so many source countries for its migrants? Partly because the government consciously went looking for a mix of them. In the 1960s, the Coalition government chose Eastern European refugees because they were anti-communist. In the 1970s, the Whitlam government chose Latin American refugees because they were anti-fascist, and because Australia had not taken from Latin America before.

A former Immigration deputy secretary, Abul Rizvi, says that of the 28 per cent of Australians who are overseas born, 41 countries each supply at least 0.5 per cent of that total, or 33,000 people. Britain and France, by contrast, are struggling to integrate large populations of migrants and their descendants from a small number of source countries – a legacy of their colonial pasts. A large number of small populations makes integration easier. Ashley Midalia, who advised former immigration minister Chris Bowen, says it’s the “multi” that makes multiculturalism work.

It was an epic change. But one thing never changed: behind the velvet of welcome lay the iron fist of control. Canada does not manage its border to anything like the same degree as Australia. Britain can only estimate its number of illegal immigrants at somewhere between 400,000 and a million. The United States guesses its figure at 11 million. Australia knows that last year it had about 64,000 illegal immigrants (or visa overstayers), a number that has changed little in 20 years, despite a vast increase in the number of arrivals. The immigration minister is required to report the number of overstayers to parliament every year. In 1988, when finance minister Peter Walsh raged against “blow outs and cave-ins” in the size of the migration program, the department was devastated, and vowed never to miss a target again. In one or two subsequent years, it would get within a handful of visas on either side of a target of around 100,000.

It all leads to a conundrum. The success of multicultural Australia, of which so many people are so proud, which turned an insular, institutionally racist country into one of the world’s most open and tolerant societies, is built on bipartisan policies that are bureaucratic, rigid to the point of obsessional, and at times cruel.

One of Canberra’s best-known former public servants, a tough operator, put it this way: “Both parties are driven by the same political imperative – if you cannot demonstrate control of the borders, you’re fucked. You will create a backlash that’s very difficult to control. It means very tight border controls, ruthless in their application. It does mean people get hurt, you can’t pretend otherwise.”

It was John Howard who famously said, and effectively won an election on the back of it, “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.” But it was Gerry Hand, a much-liked member of Labor’s Left, who in 1992 introduced mandatory detention for anyone without a visa and applied it particularly to asylum seekers who came by boat.

It was Bob Hawke who, one year after tearfully decreeing that 20,000 (later 42,000) Chinese students could remain in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre, said upon the arrival of one boat containing 25 Cambodians and one Vietnamese: “We have an orderly migration program. We’re not going to allow people just to jump that queue by saying we’ll jump into a boat … lob here, and Bob’s your uncle. Bob is not your uncle on this issue.”

It was Labor immigration minister Robert Ray who said that Australia would not give up valuable places in its refugee program to “large numbers of people seeking a better life who present themselves as asylum seekers”. It was Labor leader Bill Hayden who in 1978 worried about wealthy Vietnamese boat people “jumping the queue”. And so on, back to Robert Menzies and Calwell, back to the First Fleet and its carefully selected human cargo.

Howard’s line – “we will decide” – has a strident, nationalist note. But the “we” is not white, Anglo-Saxon Australia. Most Australians, including migrants, accept the brutal bargain: you have to be invited, there’s a right way and a wrong way. As George Megalogenis writes in his book Faultlines, Howard’s line was gifted to him from a Liberal focus group, spoken by a woman who came to Australia as a Palestinian refugee.

Control had another consequence, perhaps the most important. In its first few years, the Howard government accelerated the transformation of the migration program from one based on family reunion to one based on skills.

The change had lasting consequences. As the new migrants were both young – Australia banned anyone older than 45 from taking out most skilled visas – and found jobs relatively quickly, analysis showed that over their lives they would pay more in taxes than they took in welfare benefits and other costs to government. Coupled with a sharp drop in Australian fertility rates through the 1990s, this persuaded Treasury, the Reserve Bank and most of government of the economic benefits of migration – a view that remains deeply held today.

Second, as the economy and the mining boom gathered pace in the early 2000s, business began demanding action to address skill shortages in the workforce. Temporary migration was seen as a big part of the answer. Temporary migrants could be brought in more quickly, employers could put them on fixed contracts while taking a look at them, and they in turn got a look at the job and at Australia before deciding to seek permanent residence. To meet the need for skills, the government also made it easier for overseas students to become permanent residents after they finished their studies.

With this combination of permanent and temporary migration, arrival numbers soared. The new migrants came above all from India and China, embedding Australian links to Asia’s largest societies and fastest-growing economies. These changes, which were led by the then immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, and Abul Rizvi were among the department’s greatest achievements. They helped to ensure a strong economy and therefore sustained public support for migration. Neither the speed nor scale of them would have been possible without a tightly managed program.

In 2003 an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economic survey described Australia as “an immigration country par excellence”. In 2009 the then head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, said that Australia had “one of the best refugee resettlement programs in the world”. Such commentary might have sealed the department’s reputation, were it not for the greatest challenge to the system of managed migration that Australia has ever seen.

In the past 20 years, about 63,000 people, mainly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, have come to Australia by boat seeking asylum. No issue since the Vietnam War has more transformed and poisoned Australia’s politics. It hardened the Liberal Party and weakened its small-l liberal wing. It lost the Labor Party at least one federal election, tore its support base in two, and left it with a paralysis on the subject from which it is still recovering. It severed inner-city progressives from the rest of the nation, suggesting to many that White Australia had not died, after a decade in which they had embraced a new idea of their nation as “enmeshed”, in Bob Hawke’s word, with Asia. It condemned thousands of people who were not criminals to years of often indefinite detention, may have caused suicides, and certainly left lifelong psychological damage.

A former senior public servant described a conversation he had years ago with another agency head, who was bemoaning the harshness of the Howard government line on asylum seekers. Labor would do it no differently, the first man said. The other replied, “Yes, but the Coalition enjoys it!”

No one escapes blame, though. When the MV Tampa, carrying more than 400 asylum seekers, sought permission to enter Australian waters in August 2001, John Howard seized his chance to destroy Kim Beazley and the Labor Party, over an issue on which he had genuinely strong feelings. He and his defence minister, Peter Reith, subsequently accused other asylum seekers of throwing their children overboard, Reith letting the lie stand during the election campaign, even after a senior Defence figure had told him it was false. After the September 11 attacks Reith and Howard speculated, with zero evidence, about Islamist terrorists coming to Australia in boats. The linking of asylum seekers and national security began here.

Kevin Rudd came to office in 2007 on the back of widespread disgust with detention policies, which the public felt free to express now that Howard had stopped the boats. When the boats started returning, in part because of Labor’s softer policies, Rudd froze. With breathtaking hypocrisy he tried to persuade his various audiences that he was generous to asylum seekers and merciless on evil people-smugglers while, in the Oceanic Viking stand-off, like Howard, he turned back asylum seekers at sea.

Meanwhile, the Greens and advocacy groups, who had spent years calling for a regional solution, walked away when the chance for one finally came. In 2011, the Malaysia agreement, in which Australia would have flown 800 asylum-seeker arrivals to Malaysia in return for taking 4000 of its verified refugees from there, promised a partnership with a vital country through which the asylum seekers came. Those flown to Malaysia, a Muslim country, could live there, with work rights, until their status was resolved. Critically, the UNHCR said it could work. Yet after the High Court found the agreement unlawful under the existing Migration Act, largely on the ground that Malaysia had not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Greens joined forces with the Coalition in parliament to kill it, even though it was clear that the alternative would be Manus Island and Nauru. The search for the perfect solution led to the harshest one.

One day, someone will document the despair this issue caused among advisers, public servants, even hardened politicians. Officials stopped saying at barbecues that they worked in Immigration. Their children were abused at school; a woman who had worked for years to bring refugees to Australia was spat on in the street. A senior figure says she knows eight or 10 people who suffered something like PTSD. After an estimated 1200 asylum seekers had drowned, the Customs officials who patrolled the sea north of Australia told their union representatives who were voting on the issue at a Labor conference: please don’t support any policy that will force us to pull more dead children out of the water.

The issue was badly handled in part because some politicians used it for their own advantage, but also because it was so difficult. How could such a rich country turn away people in need? How could we be so cruel as to detain them? On the other hand, did the state not have a right to say who came here, especially when the program had worked so well for so long?

From 1976 to 1996, Australia had had five major debates about the place of immigration in national life: the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the ’70s, fears about the pace of Asian migration raised by Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard in the ’80s, the 1988 FitzGerald report’s contention that Australia was losing control of its migration program and had to turn towards skills, the debate over engagement with Asia in the early ’90s, and the charge in Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech that Australia was being “swamped” by Asians. Some of these debates were toxic, some productive; all probably had to happen. They suggested a country coming to terms with its place in the world.

In the past 20 years, beside those 63,000 asylum seekers, 3.3 million migrants came. In terms of long-term national impact, asylum seekers are a minnow beside the migration whale, but for two decades we talked about little else.

The striking exception, among ministers, was Philip Ruddock, minister between 1996 and 2003. The left of politics reviles him for his harsh policies and language towards asylum seekers. Yet most of the public servants I spoke to admired him. He was an energetic advocate of the migration program. Once a year he would tour the country, holding town hall forums to explain the policies and why large numbers were necessary. He would talk for 40 minutes, take questions for an hour. In Port Augusta, South Australia, there was only one man in the room, but Ruddock spoke anyway.

Ruddock also brought large numbers of Sudanese refugees to Australia. He spent his nights and weekends visiting ethnic community functions. He persuaded Howard to launch a Living in Harmony anti-racism initiative and to support a document endorsing multiculturalism, quite an achievement given Howard’s known dislike for the term.

Ruddock, though, was one of the last senior politicians of either main party to be so vocal in favour of migration. The September 11 attacks, followed by bombings in Madrid and London, seeded a radical doubt, especially in Europe but also in the United States and Australia, about multiculturalism and the immigration programs that fed it.

But asylum seekers also shaped the silence around population policy. In 2009, Kevin Rudd canvassed a “Big Australia” of 36 million by 2050, but he dropped the idea, never to speak it again while in office, after less than a day of switchboards lighting up on talkback radio. Julia Gillard publicly disavowed Rudd’s Big Australia, but did little to stop it.

These tortured pirouettes were made in the shadow of the boats. Rudd spoke in the midst of the Oceanic Viking crisis, Gillard after Abbott had been elected Opposition leader and was pounding the government with his drumbeat of “stop the boats”. Polling by the Scanlon Foundation shows that while opposition to migration has generally stayed at around 36 per cent since 2007, the two years in which it shot up were 2010 and 2013, election years dominated by debate over asylum seekers.

I asked Andrew Markus, author of the Scanlon report, whether voters mixed up asylum seekers and immigration. “I think they do, big time,” he said. “Especially people who are not well educated see a direct link between boats coming and migration.”

Not just the less educated. In a 2014 piece for the ABC website, entitled “Migrants Were Once Welcomed – What Happened?”, Canberra writer Richard Hughes bemoaned the “competitive cruelty” of refugee policy by asking, “Who could deny that our migrants enrich us beyond measure? … Should we give up influences from the olive to architecture? … So why are we not seeking a way to continue our regeneration, our national enrichment?” In that year the migration program was running at close to its highest level of all time.

Public servants were caught at the heart of this tumult. Some pragmatically accepted the government’s prerogative, others were troubled. All said the same thing: I did what I could to lessen the damage. “I have never agreed with mandatory detention,” one said in a speech made under the Chatham House Rule of anonymity. “I believe it brutalises the people subject to it and the people who have to administer it. Nonetheless I have administered and defended it consistent with my professional role as a public servant.”

Usually, though, these public servants had a different view both from the public and from the educated, centre-left middle class to which most of them belong. They didn’t see heroic activists or evil politicians. They didn’t see bad illegal immigrants or good refugees. They saw a group of enterprising, often desperate people determined to come to Australia and a government determined to assert its legitimate right to decide whether they did. On all sides, they saw a slow coarsening of attitudes over time.

One former official likens Australia’s response to a frog in a slowly heating jar of water. With each wave of boats, each chapter of trauma and riots in detention, attitudes hardened, until the water boiled.

“It’s the policy ratchet,” she adds. “Whenever more boats came, politicians felt compelled to show they were doing something that was tougher than what they did last time, even if last time worked. As a result, we’re in a predicament. Governments of both sides have nowhere to go except a humiliating backdown or ever harsher measures.”

It all started mildly enough. In 1991 the first detention centre outside a major city was established at Port Hedland, Western Australia, mostly to house Cambodians who had come in boats from 1989. On Saturday mornings, department officials and asylum-seeker lawyers would have coffee together in the town’s one cafe. The centre was next to a bowling club with a late licence, and officials would get calls at 3am saying, “A couple of your boys have escaped, they’re here having a beer.” And the official would say, “Leave them, I’ll be over in a minute.”

But time passed, and the asylum seekers’ legal appeals ground on. The 26 Cambodians who had landed at Pender Bay in 1989 spent an average of 523 days in detention; three spent more than four years. They grew bitter: some held hunger strikes, stitched their lips. Five or 10 men got on the roof during a protest, two fell and were seriously injured. The department put sand around the building, made the fence higher, and employed private security guards, who were a little less friendly. The seeds of the inescapable brutality at the heart of detention had been sown.

“In 1989 a child was detained in Villawood after a routine compliance matter,” says a former senior official. “My branch head was apoplectic: ‘Release that child immediately!’” In August 2013, close to 2000 children were in detention.

“Bad things happened for understandable reasons,” she continues. At some point the department decided it would be simpler to give detainees not a name but a number: the names were hard to spell, there were often 10 men called Mohammed. But hearing of the decision, a senior figure protested: “What next? Tattoos on their arms?” The practice was dropped for a while, but it returned.

In 2001, a six-year-old Iranian boy, Shayan Badraie, fell into a catatonic depression that seemed to be triggered by a prolonged stay in detention. The department lobbied Ruddock to release the rest of his family from detention so they could be with the boy, who was now in foster care. Ruddock scrawled on the brief: “bucklies” (sic).

How could he do that? I asked a former official who liked Ruddock. He sighed. “I don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t believe the family’s story.” Another said all immigration ministers hardened in the job. “At first Ruddock was clearly distressed about the decisions he had to make. Two or three years later you become desensitised. You’ve heard the stories [of visa applicants and asylum seekers] before. You have to be a special type of person to put that aside.”

But Ruddock never closed the small loophole that enabled him to bring to Australia verified refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, once the boats had stopped. For 30 years, and often after much trauma, most people in the waves of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chinese, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians got here in the end. Until 2013, when Rudd said that no one who came by boat would ever get to Australia, and 2016, when Turnbull, putting the last turn on the ratchet, tried to put this pledge into legislation. Under the government’s bill, no one who came by boat – not if they were genuine refugees, had left Manus Island or Nauru voluntarily, had married an Australian, had remade their lives somewhere else and sought to come back as a businessperson or even a tourist – would ever set foot in this land.

For Labor, this was finally too much. It opposed and defeated the bill. But at this point the frog that had jumped into the jar many years ago, as the official put it, had been well and truly boiled alive.

The government said that such severity was needed to defeat the people smugglers. But with boat turnbacks having effectively sealed the border, this was the point at which the commitment to control, embedded in the nation’s history, seemed to reach a dead end, and a dark one. Greg Phillipson, a senior lawyer, had worked in the department for nearly 40 years and was no bleeding heart. He had liked working for Scott Morrison in 2013 and 2014, thought he was a good minister, and he supported turnbacks. “I’ve been to Christmas Island and looked over that sea – no small boat should ever cross it.” But he thought the department’s advice that the government should not allow 150 people from Nauru and Manus Island to be resettled in New Zealand was unconscionable. Asked to work on the bill barring the door to Australia forever, he refused. The decision contributed to his early retirement last year. “I thought, ‘This is a sick organisation, we’re just being cruel.’ A few of us joke about what will happen 10 years from now, when the royal commission gets going. I think history will not be kind.”

Similarly, Sandi Logan had been the department’s media spokesperson for nearly 10 years when the offshore centres were reopened in 2012. “My fingerprints are all over it,” he says. “I thought the policy was designed to put a short-term jolt to the people-smuggling model. In the short term, I could live with Manus and Nauru, as detestable as they were. All these years later, I don’t sleep easily at night at the thought that people are still there, having their lives destroyed.” He adds, “Immigration is not just about asylum seekers but that is what it has become. That is the greatest tragedy of my time there.”

Among all these casualties, one was the department itself. Under the relentless pressure of managing asylum seekers – hardly core business – officials became timid, ground down, risk-averse. A department that prided itself on being strong in a crisis came to be seen as crisis-prone. A string of reports after the detention of Cornelia Rau and the deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon pointed to these failings. A report commissioned by Pezzullo cited them as reasons why the culture had to be overturned.

More importantly, the Abbott government took power harbouring its own sense of indignation about asylum seekers. It felt that Labor’s “misguided compassion”, as Dutton put it, had provoked the return of the boats, with all the chaos that followed. This view may well explain the stripping down of the department. Coalition governments often come to power hostile to those parts of the public service that they see, rightly or wrongly, as too close to Labor, but the case of Immigration had an added twist. With border protection so central to the Coalition’s sense of electoral supremacy, and immigration so marginal to public debate, dismantling the department was perhaps only a matter of time.

As Michael Pezzullo walked the corridors of his new department in 2014, he studied the walls, with their black-and-white photos of men and women leaving boats and planes, suitcases in hand, or learning English in the migrant hostel. People like his parents. Such photos were moving, but as images of migration today they were all wrong. A new paradigm was needed.

In an early speech, Pezzullo said that Australia was entering its third immigration revolution, after the start of the program in 1945 and the switch to a skills-based program from 1985. This one involved “the migration of skilled workers living abroad on a temporary basis, and not seeking necessarily to settle at all”. Recruitment of these highly skilled “mobile global citizens” would ensure a strong economy.

He didn’t say much more about the revolution than that. And as time passed and the creation of Home Affairs loomed, immigration dropped out of his speeches altogether. Was it no longer important? Then, in a speech in October 2017 to the Trans-Tasman Business Circle, a colloquium of public sector and business leaders, Pezzullo set out “the narrative or philosophical context” for his new department. Again, immigration barely featured. But that was not the most striking aspect of the speech.

Pezzullo began by noting that Australians have enjoyed the fruits of an open economy and society. But globalisation was not an unalloyed force for good. Alongside trade, travel and internet shopping, a “dark universe” was emerging. “Terror, crime, and indeed evil” were becoming globalised. There were “global dark markets for hacking, money laundering, cryptocurrency movement, assumed identities for criminals, terrorists, child exploitation perpetrators and others”. Pezzullo remembered “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, AC/DC’s 1976 ode to hiring a hit man. Today you didn’t have to make a call and creep to the back of a pub to contract a killer. On the “global dark web market for murder, if you know where to go, you can contract a fly-in assassin”.

From there the speech took flight, a rush of literary references leading Pezzullo from Leviathan to The Leopard to The Lord of the Rings. He told how, after defeating the Dark Lord, the hobbits returned to their “beautifully kept hobbit holes”, never aware of the sacrifices made to defeat the Black Riders, who had been “on the borders of the Shire, seeking to penetrate their very comfortable, safe and blissfully ignorant existence”. Turning from Sauron to Bec Judd, Pezzullo noted that the TV personality and wife of former Carlton footballer Chris Judd had apparently worn flat shoes to the AFL Grand Final in case she needed to run from a terrorist attack. “I applaud her judgement, I applaud her risk-savviness, but above all I applaud, and indeed congratulate her on, that great attitude, first coined in Britain, of ‘keeping calm and just carrying on’. Well done, Ms Judd.”

The boosters of globalisation were naive if they ignored its duality of good and evil, Pezzullo concluded. However, “I don’t believe it’s the end of days either. It’s not the end of days, if we purposefully attack the problem and make it not so.”

End of days? Most secretaries give speeches about joined-up government acting responsibly in the interests of citizens. It was mesmerising, original and strange.

Before our interview I am ushered onto the fifth floor, past a double row of black-and-white portraits of Australia’s 32 immigration ministers, from Arthur Calwell to Harold Holt, Billy Snedden, Al Grassby, Mick Young, Philip Ruddock, and down to Peter Dutton – all men bar Amanda Vanstone. Pezzullo, 53, is tall and slightly stooped, courteous and friendly, though one can sense the gloves going on at any implied criticism in a question. In this interview there is time only for three.

I asked why his Trans-Tasman Business Circle speech failed to mention immigration. He settled in his chair, touched his hands together at the fingertips, and began as if he were dictating a letter.

“I welcome the opportunity to answer the question, and the points contained therein. Immigration is fundamental to what Australia is, has become and what it is going to become. I speak as the son of migrants. I am deeply, emotionally, viscerally invested in it.

“Here’s the bottom line right up front. Immigration is so important that it can’t be left to a single department. I accept that that is a play on Clemenceau, the French premier at the time of World War One: war is so important it can’t be left to the generals. If you’re not familiar with the quote, these days Google is amazing.”

Pezzullo said the government “very consciously” broke the old immigration paradigm. The employment department had always determined what skills the nation needed. Now, the Department of Education and Training forecasts how migration can help to address labour market shortages. Treasury is studying population pressures and urban settlement. Social Services runs refugee and migrant settlement services. Pezzullo says these departments are best placed to exercise these functions: why duplicate and silo them in Immigration?

His department still selects migrants, though. Employment decides how many nurses and architects Australia needs; Immigration finds them, and checks their bona fides. “If Australia was a corporation, we’re not even the HR department. We’re the recruitment branch of HR.” Pezzullo said that if the department had not been absorbed into Home Affairs it would have been much smaller. However, the change “I think both reimagines and reinstates immigration at the central table, at cabinet, the way it was in the 1940s”.

Will this mainstreaming of migration policy work? The Department of Social Services is thought to have done a good job running settlement services. Yet Pezzullo acknowledges that “other departments are being challenged by these arrangements”. Will hard thinking, research and policy work about immigration and integration get done, or will they disappear into all the other areas ministers and departments have to address? Who now speaks for immigration, when it gets to the cabinet table?

Amid the blitz of ideas in Pezzullo’s speeches and conversation, I struggled to find a fresh one about migration. His “immigration revolution” was well underway before he became secretary, and seemed to be at the very least complicated by the government’s decision, in April 2017, to restrict temporary skilled migration and try to ensure that “Aussie workers have priority for Aussie jobs”, as a headline on Peter Dutton’s website put it. But Pezzullo’s greatest impact may be elsewhere.

Data and intelligence systems are vital to running an immigration program. One as tightly controlled as Australia’s especially needs to know who is coming in and out. After the Rau and Alvarez Solon calamities, the department invested $500 million in a new Systems for People that was intended to merge disconnected systems into one database that would properly record every client and ensure that no such disasters ever happened again. Far from doing so, it was a giant failure and waste of money. At the same time, it was increasingly clear that the department’s intelligence and risk analysis systems needed major improvement. The task of fixing these systems or installing new ones is a big measure on which Pezzullo’s performance in immigration will be judged.

He told me that the old department had over many years done an excellent job running the permanent migration program. However, when it came to managing temporary movements – of migrants, tourists, businesspeople and other travellers, as well as goods – the department had “struggled to cope”. The movement of 40 million across the border each year was a huge and growing challenge for the country. The task was to make the vast majority of border crossings quick and seamless, while possessing the intelligence and data systems to pinpoint the small number of people who posed a risk. Pezzullo says the old department simply did not have these systems in place.

Pezzullo says the near wholesale departure of senior executives took place in an atmosphere of respect and recognition of their contribution. His tone was forceful, stressing the need for change, but not personally rude. The former executives I spoke to felt he had needlessly insulted their work and that of the department. Greg Phillipson says Pezzullo always treated him well personally. However, “he made life intolerable for a lot of senior people. He came prejudiced; he had already made up his mind the place was incompetent.”

Another former executive says, “Mike Pezzullo had worthy goals. He is dead right about enhancing the technology and risk capability. He could have achieved them without dismembering the place and putting a fatwa on it. He could have taken people with him; instead he made many think they were hopeless and without value.”

No doubt, the old department had dead wood and had to change. But highly competent people also left, and some deep memory of what immigration policy was, and perhaps of what Australia was, left with them.

I brought Pezzullo back to his Trans-Tasman Business Circle speech, and asked whether he had a responsibility to present a more optimistic vision of the world – not naive, but not apocalyptic either.

He said he accepted the premise. Globalisation was unquestionably a good thing. But, he asked, should its dark side simply be discounted as an unfortunate by-product, when it was now possible to pay to see children and babies sexually abused and even murdered on the dark web? “I think there’s a moral imperative here. Before you can mobilise action, you have to mobilise awareness.”

Pezzullo has a point. Globalisation is disorienting precisely because it presents such a volatile mix of opportunity and threat. Government’s first duty is to protect its citizens. If his department’s newfound ruthlessness and vigilance at the border prevents crime, then we, the people, will be fortunate. Like the hobbits, we’ll never know how close the Black Riders got to the Shire.

But those who don’t have access to the ASIO briefs are increasingly being asked to take government on trust. Fair enough, to some degree, but in that case people are entitled to ask about the need for the displays of power: the dark Border Force uniforms, the terrorist threat level signs that were in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection foyer well before it became Home Affairs, or the aborted Operation Fortitude in 2015, when Border Force officials announced they would be going into the streets of Melbourne, cracking down on visa fraud and speaking “with any individual we cross paths with”.

Pezzullo revealed how much terrorism concerns now shape immigration policy when he told a joint standing committee that after September 11 “it became inexcusable to have any department in the world [solely] responsible for the migration function”. Migration comes in part under Homeland Security in the United States and has always come under the Home Office in Britain.

But Pezzullo did not mention Canada, which more resembles Australia in its migration policy than any other country. Among major OECD countries, Australia and Canada have the highest per capita rates. Presumably Canada faces no fewer security threats than Australia does, yet it proclaims its openness to migration. It also retains a separate department. Its Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada home page is covered in photos of smiling migrants in hard hats, suits and student graduation gowns. Another page states, “Canada has benefited tremendously from immigration, as it contributes to economic prosperity, diversity, and our nation’s strong cultural fabric.”

By contrast, Australia’s Immigration and Border Protection home page last year carried no smiling face or photo at all. Instead, at the top, three words leapt out: “Report suspicious behaviour.”

A Canberra figure who knows Pezzullo well describes him as “a bureaucrat of formidable capacity, unbothered by what others think of him, hard-working, genuinely interesting, considerate – and with lousy judgement”. I asked for an example of the last. “That dark world speech. It seems to seriously misjudge the nature of the threats we face. There is a big obligation not to make it look worse than it is, especially when doing so is intended to increase your capacity to exercise power by scaring people, which is what I think Mike and his masters have been doing for some time now.” Pezzullo says he “utterly rejects” such characterisations of his motives.

What does this have to do with immigration? Potentially, a lot. Pezzullo’s support for it is no doubt genuine. But he is a public servant, ethically bound to serve the government of the day. What of his minister, Peter Dutton?

In a speech in London last year, Dutton did set out the historical rationale: a large migration program requires a strong border. Yet among the 300 or so media releases he has put out since becoming minister – a rollcall of expulsions of non-citizens with criminal records, illegal immigrants, bikie gangs, drugs and thugs – I counted eight that unequivocally celebrated migration, and most of these were pro forma nods to events like Australia Day and Citizenship Day. (I made two requests to interview Dutton but received no response.)

Dutton has also spoken of “unprecedented security threats from terrorists, extremists and criminals who seek to exploit migration pathways to citizenship for their own ends”. He has said it was a mistake to let Lebanese Muslims into the country in the 1970s. He accused refugees of both languishing on the dole and taking Australian jobs. Sometimes Dutton sounds like the minister for emigration.

There is no evidence that the government intends to cut the migration program. Nevertheless, groping for a weak spot in Labor’s defences, it seems to be calculating whether confronting its opponent on immigration and integration, the way it did on asylum seekers, would help it win the next election.

In November I spoke to Terry Moran, a former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He is now the chair of the Centre for Policy Development, which last year put out a report, “Settling Better”, that examined the challenges of settling refugees who come under the refugee and humanitarian program. The report showed that fewer than one in five had found a job after being in Australia for 18 months. Two in five work as labourers, but the need for unskilled labour is falling. Moran was worried, and felt that Australia needed to redouble its resettlement efforts. “If we don’t do a better job, our democracy will push back on immigration numbers. The argument will be entirely populist, and it will be based on these dangerous people hanging around the suburbs who don’t have jobs and are a threat.”

This was prophetic. Two months later, African youth crime in Melbourne became front-page news. The issue is a serious one, so you would imagine that federal and state politicians would want to work together to address it. A bipartisan response drawing on Australia’s historical approach to immigration would stress the need to be tough on crime and properly resource the police, but also put the numbers in proportion, and show how nearly every migrant group has struggled to settle in its early years before finding its place and enriching the country. Instead, Malcolm Turnbull immediately branded Victoria’s Labor government as soft. Dutton, once more sounding the air raid siren, said Victorians were too scared to go out for dinner, and that Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann was “a beacon of Bill Shorten’s weakness on border protection and law and order”.

Other events also suggest the ground is shifting underfoot. In April, Turnbull and Dutton announced a plan to require permanent residents to wait four years, instead of one, before becoming citizens. For temporary migrants, this could stretch the period for obtaining citizenship to seven years or more.

Introducing the bill in parliament, Dutton spoke of “an increasingly challenging national security environment”. The goal was to establish a “probationary period” to consider “a person’s word and deeds across this time” before bestowing the “extraordinary privilege” of being Australian. Labor and Greens senators thwarted the bill, but Dutton has said he wants to reintroduce it this year.

A second plan, which emerged when a Department of Social Security brief was leaked to Fairfax in 2016, would require migrants to take out a provisional visa before gaining permanent residence. Again, the goal seemed to be making it harder for people to become Australian, in case the government wanted to kick them out. The brief, which fiercely opposed the new visa, was written by an official, Evan Lewis, who runs the settlement services that were once in the department of immigration. He warned against “changing the longstanding national narrative to one that treats all migrants with suspicion”.

The citizenship and provisional visas proposals would reverse Australia’s 70-year tradition of moving migrants quickly to citizenship, enabling them to vote, carry a passport, swear an oath of loyalty and start to feel part of the country. In the 1990s British officials made regular visits to Australia to study its citizenship laws, the ones the government is now seeking to renounce.

The proposals would also intensify a change that has unfolded over the past 20 years – what journalist Peter Mares calls “the permanent move to temporary migration”. In his 2016 book Not Quite Australian: How Temporary Migration Is Changing the Nation, Mares identifies a million people who are part of the workforce but are not permanent residents or citizens. Most may happily leave when their visa expires, but others have effectively made Australia their home, and yet, after years living and working here, have no path to citizenship. Unlike other landmark changes to migration policy, says Mares, this one has happened with no public discussion.

The Turnbull government says the citizenship changes are driven by national security imperatives. Yet a plan that purportedly seeks to protect the nation could weaken loyalty to it. In a forthcoming article for SBS online, Mares warns that an “extended experience of precariousness for many migrants” could move Australia closer to a European guest worker model, in which “a cohort of subordinate, always-temporary migrants are continuously swapped out and replaced, before they can build up the rights and entitlements that accrue with full membership of the political community”.

Even if any Australian government wanted to substantially reduce migration, though, it would be a bloody battle to do so. Migration is deeply embedded in the economy and society. Many industries rely on temporary skilled migrants. The horticultural industry says it cannot pick its crop without backpacker labour. Most importantly, half a million overseas students comprise Australia’s third largest industry, worth $22 billion a year. Around a third of Monash University’s revenue comes from Chinese students alone.

What’s more, last financial year a quarter of all migrants, nearly 50,000 people, became permanent residents as partners of Australians. More than 70,000 wait in the pipeline, their right to become Australian guaranteed by law. The government could try to change the law, but it would be brave to legislate against love.

Leaving all these difficulties aside, let’s assume that key figures in the government were indeed ambivalent about migration and the challenges of integration. If so, it would be in part because the public is, too. Scanlon Foundation polling shows that while 10 to 13 per cent are strongly negative about migration, and 15 to 20 per cent strongly positive, close to 65 per cent “are in the middle ground, open to persuasion”. It’s not surprising. In the global and national moment, ambivalence is understandable.

Australia’s largest cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne, are struggling to cope with gridlocked roads, crowded trains, overloaded infrastructure, and housing prices that are keeping young people from being able to own a home. Immigration is far from the only driver of these changes, but it is one.

Cities contain more than four in five of Australia’s overseas-born. One in four people in Sydney, and nearly one in five in Melbourne, lives in a suburb in which at least half the population was born overseas. In Auburn in Western Sydney and Dandenong in Melbourne’s south-east, people from a non-English speaking background make up 83 and 75 per cent of the population respectively. The Scanlon report, noting these historically high concentrations, asks “whether past patterns of integration are continuing or whether new norms are being established”. It also notes that reports of discrimination have risen steeply in the past decade. In other words, it would be blithe to say that the Australian gift for absorbing newcomers is guaranteed to last forever.

Dutton and the government seem focused on Europe, where border fences are going up and support for populist parties is surging on the back of alarm about the huge migrations to the continent in the past few years. Along with the terrorist attacks in France and Germany in 2016, they have made integration, especially of Muslim populations, a defining issue.

In a further element of Turnbull’s citizenship proposal, applicants would have had to pass a 20-question test revised to include “values-based” questions on subjects such as genital mutilation, domestic violence and child marriage. This was a leaf out of the European book, where for well over a decade governments of left and right have struggled to lay down cultural markers in the face of large-scale immigration from Muslim countries. The Netherlands made migrants watch a film showing men kissing and topless women on a beach. The French banned headscarfs in schools and burqas on the street.

Australia’s 604,000 Muslims comprise Australia’s largest non-Christian faith, although they are only 2.6 per cent of the population. While their communities are diverse, integration of parts of them remains a challenge. The clash between these segments and secular democratic values, and the struggle between radical and moderate positions among Muslims, are significantly affected by global events, making them harder for national policy to influence. The Scanlon report finds that negativity towards Muslims is relatively high, although it is not growing.

Yet a potentially far bigger issue than Muslim integration is looming. Former Defence bureaucrat Hugh White argues in his powerful 2017 Quarterly Essay, Without America, that few predicted the speed of US withdrawal from the Pacific region, and of China’s advance. White writes that as this power shift gathers pace, Australia will be under pressure as it has not been in a long time. The racism of 1901 is much reduced, yet deep-seated fears of Chinese power – Australia’s inescapable history – have returned. Will the country become anxious, defensive, obsessed with threat, or will it rise to the challenge?

The change also carries a big opportunity, though. Already, a million Australians were born in China and India; more than a million have a Chinese background. Half of all new migrants come from east or south Asia, and these numbers will only grow. These migrants could play an outsized role in the nation’s future. Australia is becoming more Eurasian by the day, just as the weight of world power is moving to its neighbourhood. But no leader is talking about this.

Upheavals can happen; walls can go up. But modern life is putting people on the move as never before, and over time that almost certainly means rising levels of migration. Australia is better placed than just about anyone to manage them, provided it still believes in its model. That’s no longer clear. For many years Australia had a unique formula: tight control of migration that was nevertheless balanced with a welcoming disposition, a quick start to citizenship and leaders who talked to the public about why migration mattered. The angels and arrogant gods of our nature existed in tension and in balance. It’s the Australian way. But are we waking to a new Australia? One former public servant said, “I worry that the arrogant gods have taken charge and the angels have left the building.”

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

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