Saturday 9th of December 2023

cultural survival .....

In the wake of the Palmer & Comrie Reports, dealing with DIMIA’s appalling treatment of Vivian Alvarez, there have been loud & repeated calls for the Minister, Amanda Vanstone, to resign.


Prime Minister, John Howard, has refused to back these calls & has defended Vanstone, arguing that no Minister can be expected to resign every time something goes wrong in their department. 


Whilst many Australians, including myself, oppose the government’s draconian mandatory detention policies for refugees, I think we need to recognize that formulating government policy & the effective administration of government departments are very different issues. 


As Minister for Immigration, Vanstone is accountable to the parliament & ultimately the electorate for the formulation, recommendation & implementation of approved government policies, as they relate to her portfolio.  


But I agree with Howard & don’t think that Vanstone can be expected to be responsible for the detailed execution of every action necessary to give effect to those policies & she certainly can’t be expected to be responsible for the failure of departmental officers to properly & responsibly carry-out their duties, unless she knew about such failings or could reasonably be expected to know & did nothing about them. 


On all the evidence, Vanstone appears to have acted responsibly in ensuring that timely investigations were launched into the failings of her department, once the alarm was raised, & also to ensure prompt feedback to the Parliament & the public was given on the outcome of those investigations. In addition, she appears to have recognized & responded quickly & effectively to the need for cultural change within DIMIA. 


But whilst I don’t believe Vanstone should resign, I do think the government has got it wrong on the accountability issue & ironically, its failure in that regard will ultimately work against the achievement of positive reform within DIMIA’s culture. 


The fact is that the Secretary of the department has responsibility, on behalf of the Minister, for its administration. The Secretary & his deputies exercise statutory & delegated decision-making powers & they, together with the department’s division heads, form a board of management, responsible for the management & administration of the department’s operations. 


So, to all intents & purposes, the recently departed Secretary of DIMIA, Bill Farmer, & his team were responsible & ultimately accountable for its managerial performance. 


Farmer was Secretary for 7 years & the nature & effectiveness of DIMIA’s culture & management performance was ultimately down to him. Farmer was responsible for the organization & for ensuring it was adequately resourced & managed. 


As far as I’m concerned, it was Farmer & the head of DIMIA’s border control & compliance division whose heads should have rolled over the Alvarez debacle & not just those of the relatively junior officials who were directly responsible for failing to act in the matter, once the department’s mistakes had been detected. 


But in one of the most cynical political decisions made by the Howard government, Farmer got a gong & a diplomatic sinecure, instead of the axe, whilst nothing has been heard about the head of the border control & compliance division. 


So the net effect of the government’s actions is that a couple of the ‘troops’ get shot but senior management remains totally unaccountable. 


Whilst Palmer & Comrie were busy applying their blow torches to DIMIA’s belly, Andrew Metcalfe, the department’s new Secretary, was telling DIMIA staff that they needed to be “confident & competent in their dealings with clients