Dutton’s shaky ground
The au pair scandal could yet bring down the home affairs minister
The ground is slipping beneath Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton as the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs delves into his extraordinary intervention on behalf of two au pairs detained by immigration officials. Dutton, who faces an unprecedented motion of no confidence next week for misleading parliament, has resisted testifying before the inquiry. His departmental secretary, Michael Pezzullo, expertly blocked and parried under questioning this morning, taking as much as possible on notice. Pezzullo let one thing be known, however, which reveals the government’s priorities: the leak of embarrassing departmental emails last week has been referred to the Australian Federal Police, which is ultimately answerable to … the home affairs minister himself, of course. Dutton appears completely unaccountable, and confidence in our political system takes another step down.
The committee’s hearings in Parliament House, Canberra, began with a weary Labor senator Murray Watt, who has led the Opposition’s questioning on this affair, pointing out there was only really one question that needed answering today: “What’s the go with the au pairs?” As The Guardian’s indispensable live-blog of today’s hearings shows, the answers he got only raised more questions.
The scandal has been building for months, and concerns two young women who were pulled up by immigration officials and denied tourist visas in 2015, on suspicion that they were intending to work as au pairs. The first, an Italian woman, was detained in Brisbane, but was granted a visa by minister Dutton at the request of a former colleague from the Queensland police.
Awkwardly for Dutton, in March this year the Greens’ Adam Bandt asked him to categorically rule out “any personal connection or any other relationship between you and the intended employer of either of the au pairs”. Dutton responded: “The answer is yes.” That unequivocal reply was either an error or a lie, and the ministerial code of conduct is crystal clear: it is a minister’s personal responsibility to ensure that any error or misconception is corrected or clarified, as soon as practicable. Next week Bandt, with support from Labor, will move a motion of no confidence in Dutton as minister – if successful, it would be the first such motion to pass the house and the consequences would be serious. Dutton has the support of the prime minister, but without the member for Wentworth the government has lost its one-seat majority, and could be reliant on the wayward Bob Katter, often absent from the chamber.
The second case concerned a French woman, Alexandra Deuwel, who had been in trouble with Immigration before and was detained in Adelaide Airport on suspicion that she was going to work as an au pair for the family of Callum McLachlan, whose father is reportedly a Liberal Party donor. McLachlan contacted his powerful cousin, Gillon, chief executive of the AFL, who got straight on to his government affairs chief Judy Donnelly, a former Liberal Party staffer, who got straight through to Dutton’s chief of staff. Bingo – against departmental advice, Deuwel was almost immediately granted a three-month tourist visa. McLachlan and Donnelly gave evidence by teleconference today, heavily lawyered-up. McLachlan described his relationship with Dutton, whom he’d met half a dozen times and who was the sports minister for a short time, as “a normal relationship that I would have with a minister on either side of politics”. The AFL dealt with Immigration regularly, Donnelly pointed out, for example over visas for touring international players.
Dutton has argued that as immigration minister he received thousands of requests to use his powers of ministerial intervention, including from Labor and Greens MPs, but there is more and more evidence that such dramatic results are highly unusual. This week we learnt there may have been as few as 14 such interventions in his time as minister.
On the ABC’s 7.30 program last night, former Immigration official Viviana Barrio said: “I feel that the public is being told that these cases are similar to a number of other cases, and the minister has the power to intervene, and they do that every day, and don’t know how many cases the minister has done, but these cases are not like any other one. They’re quite different.”
Practising immigration lawyers today said the same thing. Eve Watts, from Inclusive Migration Australia, said she had made six requests for ministerial intervention: two were still live, two were rejected, and two were successful. Stunningly, of the latter, both had connections with Liberal MPs: Andrew Hastie and Ben Morton.
The immigration minister’s powers are described as god-like. In evidence today, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service highlighted the complete lack of transparency and accountability, and compared the immigration minister’s discretionary powers of intervention – 47 under 20 acts – with those of the attorney-general, who has only 38 under 152 acts. RACS’ Sarah Dale said it was “frustrating” that on many occasions well-documented requests for ministerial intervention had been declined – they would not even reach the minister’s desk – and there was no transparency or accountability about the number of interventions or the outcomes. We know what happens with absolute power.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
The ground is slipping beneath Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton as the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs delves into his extraordinary intervention on behalf of two au pairs detained by immigration officials. Dutton, who faces an unprecedented motion of no confidence next week for misleading parliament, has resisted testifying before the inquiry. His departmental secretary, Michael Pezzullo, expertly blocked and parried under questioning this morning, taking as much as possible on notice. Pezzullo let one thing be known, however, which reveals the government’s priorities: the leak of embarrassing departmental emails last week has been referred to the Australian Federal Police, which is ultimately answerable to … the home...