One aspect of the controversies surrounding the culture of the Department of Immigration Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) that I haven’t seen mentioned is how it reflects on the sort of deal indigenous Australians are getting. The second ‘I’ in DIMIA stands for Indigenous, and the recently removed Secretary of the Department, Bill Farmer, oversaw the whole Department, not just the immigration side of it. It doesn’t give great confidence in how indigenous issues are being handled.
I’ve said before that indigenous issues should be given a separate Department, or at least a separate Minister. Given the massive inequality that indigenous Australians experience and our failure as a nation to fix this, this matter should have top political priority, which is not possible if the Minister responsible has their attention elsewhere half the time. This problem is compounded when the Department administering the area is so clearly dysfunctional.
Speaking of Bill Farmer, there is a report today that an Indonesian Parliamentary Committee may not be totally happy with Mr Farmer being appointed as Australia’s ambassador. Apparently the Parliamentary Commission for Security, Defence and Foreign Affairs gets a say on ambassadorial appointment of other countries, and one of the MPs on it has “formally raised ‘deep concern’ about the appointment.”
I met with some members of this Commission in Jakarta last month when I was there as part of a visiting delegation. The MPs I met certainly couldn’t be characterised as ‘anti-Australian’, although it’s quite possible the Indonesian MP quoted in the media is mainly focused on giving a political message to a domestic audience rather than speaking purely from a policy based perspective. I believe Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is vital for both our countries and this ambassadorship is amongst the most important. Whilst the relationship seems to me to be quite good at the moment, it is also a fragile one and not one where any unnecessary damage should be risked just to help the Prime Minister out of a political difficulty.
Apart from the concerns raised in the media report, it is worth noting that Bill Farmer was not just head of DIMIA, but part of the Prime Minister’s People Smuggling Taskforce at a time when Australia initiated ‘disruption activities’ with Indonesian military and police. It has never been clear precisely what this entailed, but evidence at the recent trial of a man convicted of helping to organise the fatal voyage of the SIEV X clearly showed Indonesian police or military helped facilitate this voyage. The federal Government, including Bill Farmer (and the new DIMIA Secretary Andrew Metcalfe), continually stonewalled attempts by the Senate to get answers on this.
One other issue which arises from the controversy in Indonesia over Bill Farmer’s appointment is how impressive it is that the Indonesian Parliament gets a say in ratifying appointments of overseas Ambassadors. This new democracy puts Australia to shame in showing how little real accountability there is under our system with Government appointments to key positions. The Democrats have been campaigning without success for years to get a system of appointment on merit. While it doesn’t guarantee a good outcome every time, Parliamentary scrutiny of appointments, such as is done with great vigour in the USA, at least provides some check and balance against blatantly partisan or inappropriate appointments to important positions.