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Time to instil competence

Date

The Canberra Times

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Martin Bowles, the newish secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, has put on a brave face in the wake of a capability review that found the department is poorly managed, has "financially illiterate'' executives and is pervaded by a culture of buck-passing. Acknowledging with some understatement that there was "significant room for improvement'', Mr Bowles said he was "confident'' the department would be a better agency "for our staff, for our clients and for the government as a result of the review''.

No doubt this sanguine response owes something to the fact that the review says Mr Bowles is "recognised and welcomed for his leadership experience in other areas of the APS, his personal interest in good management, and the fresh perspective and opportunity for renewal that he brings to the department''.

The report also praises the department's long-serving secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, who left his post late last year for another department as "respected for his ability to lead and manage through years of crises, criticism and successive 'transformations' of the department''. This raises the question of how exactly the DIAC came to be a dysfunctional department as outlined in detail in this review, and why there are efforts to rectify matters.

The explanation that "DIAC operates in a complex, high-profile and highly contentious environment [that] carries an unusually wide set of responsibilities across all areas of public [and] works under intense public scrutiny'' offers a clue. The elevation of asylum-seeker issues to national prominence during the early 2000s, and attempts by the Howard government to turn this to its own political advantage, focused considerable significant attention on DIAC's operations, and the exposure of the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau and the unlawful deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon showed that there was a cowboy mentality within some elements of the department.

Two separate inquiries into these incidents in 2005 revealed serious failures of process within DIAC, and recommended structural changes, as well as a sustained effort to change the department's culture.

Alarmingly, this review finds that the reforms have been only partially successful mostly because DIAC has been beset by regular crises which it has poorly managed and which have distracted it from "delivering core business''. The decision, made after the Rau and Solon inquiries, to concentrate decision-making powers in a small number of senior people, exacerbated matters.

What the review doesn't spell out, but which many people recognise, is that those crises have frequently been manufactured by ministers for immigration and by their shadows. It is hardly surprising that a department so thoroughly intimidated might become dysfunctional. It is to be hoped Mr Bowles can instil some competence within DIAC, but that task will not be made easy by the compulsion of the major parties to resort to the politics of the lowest common denominator when dealing with refugee matters and detention centres.

Summernats a hit

The annual Summernats car festival is about to clock up 26 years on the odometer. In this era of shortish attention spans and fierce competition for people's attentions and the contents of their wallets, that's a noteworthy achievement.

Summernats is unquestionably Australia's premier street machine festival, with the added attractions of burnouts, precision driving demonstrations and trade displays. But longevity has not bought Summernats universal acceptance or admiration in its host city, especially among residents in suburbs near Exhibition Park. Many complain the four-day event is an endurance test of noise, acrid smoke from burnouts and unruly behaviour by hoons on surrounding streets.

But there are benefits for the city that cannot be discounted, not the least being the money the event injects into the local economy at a time of low ebb.

And, as Thursday's 200-car Citycruise down Northbourne Avenue demonstrated, Summernats also has the welcome effect of dispelling Canberra's reputation as a somewhat stuffy place peopled only by paper-shufflers.

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