Federal Politics

COMMENT

Public servant steps over the line to lecture media about overstepping

A bizarre outburst by the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo, has revealed that even the champions of Australia's harsh and secretive border control system recognise it would struggle for legitimacy if the facts were known - that its moral and administrative fabric is dangerously threadbare.

Unwavering immigration policy

No exceptions will be made for anyone arriving in Australia by boat and those receiving medical treatment onshore will return offshore, according to the head of the Border Protection department.

While accounts of Australia's systemic cruelty and official indifference to human suffering are legion, corroborating details are lamentably less common. That's obviously the way the government wants it. And it is the way its chief public officials want it too. Ideally there would be no stories. No coverage. And of course, therefore, no accountability.

Journalistic access to offshore detention facilities is next to impossible, and extreme measures have been put in place to withhold information. Health professionals for example, are compelled to a level of secrecy completely inconsistent with their professional obligations and with Australia's liberal democratic ethos.

While the border protection regime is built around the deterrent power of denial, it is buttressed by a morally bankrupt principle of "no exceptions". The trouble is, some people were already caught within it, and it is entirely unproven - even if it is the accepted wisdom - that being humane to these would invite more boats.

But Pezzullo's a true believer and used his moment before a Senate estimates committee to lash reportage of asylum seeker allegations of child abuse and other unspeakables as "in some cases, not what it seems".

Such comments reveal the chief bureaucrat's incapacity for self reflection, nor indeed for exercising the very restraint he advocates in others. While he accuses media of straying into activism, he has clearly overstepped his own role as an independent public official, affecting the tone of a muscular protagonist in a hotly contested political debate.

"It's getting to a point where there is advocacy parading as journalism that is actually deleterious to a sensible discussion about these matters," he complained to the parliamentary committee.

Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Michael Pezzullo and Senator Michaelia Cash in ...
Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Michael Pezzullo and Senator Michaelia Cash in discussion during estimates on Monday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Pezzullo's mindset reminds one of Maslow's famous observation that it is always tempting, when the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

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