Why strong immigration ministers always disappoint
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Why strong immigration ministers always disappoint

Back in 1969 the US academic Laurence J. Peter published the influential management text The Peter Principle, an elegant look at the way that any hierarchically-organised system works.

The central idea is this: in a hierarchy that promotes people based on their performance in their current job, everyone eventually rises to their level of incompetence.

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton and his predecessor Scott Morrison

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton and his predecessor Scott Morrison

Photo: Andrew Meares

The great salesperson will be elevated out of sales and put into management, where they will progress until they suck at their job too much to be promoted further. The gun writer will be elevated to editor until they collapse under the stress of managing people and not doing journalism. No matter the industry, everyone will rise through the ranks based on their own merit until their abilities at the job are no longer good enough to justify promotion, and there they will remain.

There is, however, one important position where this sort of thing doesn't apply: Immigration Minister.

Until recently the Immigration portfolio was typically bundled with the Multiculturalism one, meaning the Immigration Minister was historically someone who - at the very least - didn't have an in-principle problem with people coming to this country.

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That changed in 2013 when Scott Morrison became our first minister for Immigration and Border Protection, a gig that became less about shaping Australian society and more a quasi-military organisation based on Soviet levels of secrecy - not to mention Soviet levels of propaganda, since it was revealed that the department was spending a staggering $8 million-plus a year on spin doctors and media monitoring.

For a department that refuses to release details about asylum seeker boat arrivals, turnbacks, towbacks, or the conditions under which people are living on Manus Island and Nauru, that's a hell of a lot of media staff hired to not release information to the media. It has, however, done wonders for changing the public perception of asylum seekers from "people fleeing war and persecution to a land known for its freedom and inclusivity" to "people sneaking in to steal your jobs and inner-city housing".

And on Sunday the current minister Peter Dutton decided to up the rhetoric against what he pejoratively termed "fake refugees": they now have until October to lodge their applications for asylum, or back they go.

"If people think that they can rip the Australian taxpayer off, if people think they can con the Australian taxpayer, then I'm sorry – the game's up," he announced, claiming that some asylum seekers had failed to lodge an application for five years.

Let's leave aside the fact that if this claim was true - and it's nonsense, just to be clear - then it's a terrible admission on Dutton's part as to how he's failed to do his job for the past two years. What, he only noticed this five year long problem yesterday?

But the reason it's nonsense is that since the majority of the people Dutton is claiming haven't lodged their asylum claims have been barred from doing so - or from earning money through work, for that matter - by the government until as recently as last December.

And this arbitrary 60 day deadline would be near-impossible for people to hit even if they had access to legal advice, which the government of which Dutton is part have deliberately and systematically removed for asylum seekers. So good luck with sorting out that complex application on your own, struggling people for whom English is a second language!

And sure, this is a terrible thing for human rights and the rule of law, but it's also a terrible thing for something that Peter Dutton cares about: the future career path of Peter Dutton.

See, Scott Morrison has recently demonstrated the horrible truth of being immigration minister: it's really, really easy to look like you're a competent, resolute, potential Prime Minister-in-waiting when a) you control all the information published in the media regarding your job, and b) the people affected by your decisions are, for the most part, being held under surveillance in detention centres on foreign islands, to which the media are rarely permitted to visit.

The problems begin when you leave the immigration portfolio - say, to become treasurer - and you rapidly discover that your mistakes are made in public and that angry, childish bullying doesn't work against those who aren't completely disenfranchised.

For example, when you decide to slug the big Australian banks with a levy (rather than a Royal Commission) and then are forced to admit that you're powerless to prevent the banks from passing those costs on to their customers, as Morrison did on Insiders last week.

When you've gotten to your current gig by looking big and strong, that sort of weakness makes you look like a bit of a goose - and goes some way to explaining why no-one is trumpeting Morrison as a future PM any more.

And if Dutton genuinely harbours aspirations to the top job, then punching downwards at people that can't fight back makes him look like just the sort of no-nonsense leader that the more terrified elements of the Liberals would very much like.

But those people should be worried because, if history is any guide, it's building him up to look like one a heck of a disappointment when he rises to his own level of incompetence.

Then again, maybe it only applies to a Peter with principles.

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