Federal Politics

COMMENT

Border Protection as Holocaust deniers? In defence of Michael Pezzullo

Michael Pezzullo, the man who presides over the Kafkaesque Department of Immigration and Border Protection, could be fairly accused of many unflattering things. But being a Holocaust denier is not one of them.

In fact, the Twitter storm that erupted after Mr Pezzullo issued a press statement on Tuesday – and Labor's attempts to get leverage from the controversy – shows how knee-jerk antagonism in the asylum seeker debate so often wins out over reasoned examination of the government's failed policy logic.

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Pezzullo, in a far-reaching and belated attempt to respond to recent media reports, addressed comments by Dr Michael Dudley who wrote that "public numbing and indifference" towards state abuses in Nazi Germany resembled that enabling Australia's immigration detention centres.

Dr Dudley's comments originally appeared in the Australasian Psychiatry journal and Fairfax Media reported them almost three weeks ago. Why the department waited so long to respond is a mystery, and reflects its frequent inability to react swiftly and proactively to adverse media coverage (hello Australian Border Farce).

But it was this line from Pezzullo - particularly the use of the word "allegedly" - that really got Twitter into a lather:

"Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to 'gulags' … [and] suggestions that detention involves a "public numbing and indifference" similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany … are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong."

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Contrary to the Twitterverse response, a sober reading suggests Pezzullo clearly did not intend to say the Holocaust may not have happened.

Other critics suggest Pezzullo was questioning whether the German public of the time was indifferent to Nazi atrocities. In an amended statement, he suggested that such claims of indifference were historically inaccurate.

Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

But his actual point, according to department's clarification, was to more broadly question any linking of public attitudes to state abuses in Nazi Germany to Australia's immigration system.

Amid the mess, commentators revelling in a tenuous "gotcha" moment would do better to scrutinise Pezzullo's original piece in its entirety – which is punctuated with questionable claims and obvious holes.

Of the asylum seeker children in Australia slated to return to Nauru, Pezzullo says: "No child will be returned to a place of harm."

Just last month, the government's top medical adviser on immigration detention, Dr John Brayley, admitted keeping children behind wire has a "deleterious" effect on their mental health. Following Pezzullo's logic then, children in community detention in Australia would not be returned to Nauru. 

Pezzullo says detainees at Nauru are "free to come and go" under the current open centre arrangement. But on a speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific, with no money or prospects, where are they to go?

He says Dr Brayley provides officials with "impartial professional medical advice". But he doesn't mention that the department, not doctors, have the final say on who should be returned to Nauru - meaning that political and bureaucratic agendas trump that medical advice.

Pezzullo, his department and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have a lot to answer for as they execute a menacing, secretive regime that is known to cause harm. But if the debate is to progress from its present mire, all sides need to speak a language of truth.

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