When Roman Quaedvlieg was with the AFP, he took the lead role in buying Tasers for ACT Police.
Faced with a choice of buying Tasers with or without video-recording devices, he unhesitatingly chose ones that did not. It was only after sustained public criticism about his approach to accountability that he decided the next tranche of Taser-purchases would include video.
Quaedvlieg is now the Commissioner of the paramilitary Australia Border Force, one with still largely undefined functions of saving us from drug smugglers, people smugglers, international prostitution and pornography, functions once performed ably with a fraction of the resources this newly defined national security function now requires. And without guns or black uniforms of the Hugo Boss style.
He gave us, on Friday a week ago, the extraordinarily dissembling but hilarious and immortal collection of denials, obfuscations and blame-shiftings over planned ABF involvement in a Melbourne police operation. Press statements issued by the ABF had implied that armed Border Force members in full black Hugo Boss-style regalia would be randomly stopping people in the street, asking them to produce evidence of their right to be in the country. Naturally, people with nothing to hide had nothing to fear.
According to Quaedvlieg, the public impression was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, perhaps a mischievous one induced by the media jihad of which Quaedvlieg's minister, a former police colleague, has recently spoken, after it was safe to rise above the parapet.
The ABF media statement had, it seems, been issued by a low-level person, a person with one pip fewer than Quaedvlieg, according to Mr Loyalty, Buck Stops Here. It was the media's fault. Or social media's fault. Or that of advocates or activists. The statement had not been cleared at higher levels. No, the minister's office had not been told.
Nor, at least by implication had Quaedvlieg or his gung-ho boss, Mike Pezzullo, been in the loop. Nor would they, or could they, have imagined such a thing.
No answer Quaedvlieg gave cleared up a single question. But the assertion of fact detectable in the babble, as well as his spin, were less than reliable. He mostly looked like a witness at a royal commission being invited to listen to a tape recording. It turned out, for example, that the minister's office had twice been sent copies of the media statement. We have only its word that it had not been studied there. Given a general pattern of micromanagement of refugee, border security and national security stunts, I do not believe it. Deniability is built into the plan.
Even after, or perhaps because of, Quaedvlieg's "clarifications", ministers, from the Prime Minister down, were contemplating a fresh public relations disaster for the government.
It was messy of itself, with a capacity to run and run. Like so many recent disasters (and like the Gillard government's) it was an own goal. It tended to confirm a general impression of dysfunction, idiocy and incompetence in everything done by the Abbott government.
It was aggravated by persisting in denial of the obvious and attempts to shift blame. It was not an "insider" disaster. Ordinary voters as much as the twittering classes dislike officious cops and pseudo-cops. It invited questions going to the very heart of the national security anxiety being willfully, and falsely, instilled by the government.
The reluctant conscripts inside the new "force" shrivelled in embarrassment at the incompetence of its leadership. Folk of the conservative right, even ones given to believing in a bit of authoritarian high-handedness with folk who don't matter much, were appalled at the idea of people in camp uniforms demanding passes from citizens on the public byways.
Quaedvlieg's boss, departmental secretary Michael Pezzullo, so often to be found advocating a new "security paradigm" by which tough and in-your-face border security is a linch-pin of the modern state, was, for once, out of sight. He was not, apparently, accepting responsibility either.
If it had not already been apparent in the new department of Immigration and Border Security that absolute loyalty, discipline and responsibility was exclusively an process going upwards, it was now. The buck goes downwards. It's always the fault of someone else.
If only to underline the point, Quaedvlieg announced an inquiry. The prospect of its blaming him or Pezzullo must be rated as low as of the organisation's culture of accountability being enhanced by the report. Heads will roll but only to remind everyone of the need for obedience.
Apart from Friday's fiasco, their taste in and for uniforms and guns, and their affection for a command culture, Pezzullo and Quaedvlieg cannot be accused of being mere hacks for the coalition. They may have, at least until Friday, delighted ministers, but they are but there to serve. Any minister.
Pezzullo, after all, was a former Labor staffer who worked with Gareth Evans when Minister for Foreign Affairs, and, later, for Kim Beazley, when Leader of the Opposition. In those days Labor, seeking some harmless, but "strong"-sounding post-2011 point of difference with John Howard on refugee issues announced it would set up a Coastguard, later called a Border Force, to save Australian sovereignty from the diabolical threat of poor people fleeing oppression. (At that stage it was not to save such people from themselves, by drowning, as we now pretend; it was simply, as it always has really been, to stop them coming at all.)
The coastguard idea, which fell considerably short of being the private army now established, was strongly pooh-poohed by the Howard government, both as likely to produce more, not less, duplication of activity and financial waste, and to make controlling the borders more difficult.
It has yet to be established that this judgment was wrong, or has been rendered redundant by extending the idea into a bigger organisation, more military and much more secretive in style. Rudd and Gillard did not implement the policy.
After Beazley's downfall, Pezzullo returned to Defence as a deputy secretary. Then to Customs. He was a big winner, under Scott Morrison, with the implementation of the secretive "stop-the-boats" strategy.
Morrison, more than most ministers, is entirely correct in his dealings with public servants but has a pronounced appetite for people with big ideas capable of advancing his primary agenda – him.
It is, essentially, to Pezzullo's advocacy that we owe the idea of an ABF and linkage of customs and immigration functions. It is to his infighting skills that Customs swallowed Immigration.
The new department, now post-Morrison, is built in Pezzullo's image. Many old immigration hands decided, or were encouraged, to abandon ship. Most warm and cuddly departmental functions, focused on resettlement, migrant assistance and multiculturalism, were exiled to social agencies (ironically now mostly to Morrison) or junked.
It is trying to build a new culture but it is clear that it will be one even more toxic than the old. Pezzullo, famously, is not known for encouraging argument, debate, or thinking out of the square. All independent thinking, if any, is done by him. His own intellectual tendencies, as can be observed by reading his laborious if philosophical speeches, are narrow, something disguised by his verbal aggression. There had been little enough imagination, in the department before but even by comparison new immigration culture will never be called multicultural or open-minded.
Pezzullo wants, ultimately to head Defence. Morrison, at one stage, wanted to be minister of defence. Leaks emerged suggesting that Morrison would be the ideal person to save us from the then Minister, the hapless David Johnson. Alternatively, it was suggested, border control activities might be – should be – put in a new super-duper Defence organisation having a lot more focus on impermeable borders.
That the Navy was working on border matters to Morrison and that Defence was, unwillingly, giving political cover to claims of a blanket need for secrecy about "on-water" activities meant there was a considerable overlap anyway.
But other ministers, and departments, plainly resented the empire building, and nothing came of it.
Pezzullo has always been a responsive can-do public servant, anxious, as all public servants are, to help make government policies succeed. Recently he has become an open advocate for the policies themselves. He has observed that both Labor and the coalition agree on almost all of the policies of stopping boats, detaining boat people, placing them in overseas concentration camps, being generally indifferent to their welfare, and avoiding, or offloading, as much external scrutiny as possible. (That's not quite as he would characterise it, but it is what it means). That perhaps a quarter of the population, including prominent church leaders, think differently is hardly relevant, except perhaps as evidence of their stupidity.
There has been recent talk in the senior councils of government of Pezzullo being detached to perform some special national security for Abbott. Finance head, Jane Halton, would, if the idea progresses, hold the fort at Immigration.
Just what this assignment is and whether it fits in with Abbott's request from national security agencies for an "announceable" a week on national security crises is not clear. But it may explain why Pezzullo has been mysteriously absent during all of the period of intense scrutiny of his Border Force project — one Pezzullo has (amazingly) compared, for breadth, vision and genius with the 1970s Tange Defence reforms.
Quaedvlieg is a modern policeman of the type now routinely making it to the top. It's a long time since he did crime fighting. For him it's patronage, position papers, briefing notes, budgets and rosters. He is, first, an ambitious, reasonably able bureaucrat and paper-shuffler, skilled in attending to, even anticipating, the needs of bosses, including politicians.
He has trodden the management path, if without much in the way of traces, apart from entries on a curriculum vitae. He has been, almost invariably as a manager, in all of the high status or fashionable police operational units, including in the Queensland Police, the Australian Crime Commission and the AFP. Despite this it is hard to associate him with the solving of any particular crime, a fresh approach to some form of social problem, or lasting change in any unit he controlled. A colleague once told me he had never known anyone, in any organisation, so ambitious. But, in a police culture of good old boys and "yes" men and women answering to media tarts, he has been careful, until now, about the spotlight.
He is agreeable enough but does not give good, or memorable speeches. His fate, probably, is that people will be replaying last week's press conference, as a Fawlty Towers quality how-not-to-do-it exercise, long after we are all dead, and no one will remember anything else.
The Border Force Fiasco is much more than last Friday. It can be seen through a thousand prisms. As a study of leadership, accountability and responsibility. As yet another example of the Abbott government's haplessness, hopelessness and current incapacity to win a trick. About whether it is actually smart to stir up public anxieties about aliens, strangers and terrorists. About whether the ABF contains the sort of people to whom we ought to give guns, and, implicitly, the right to use them. About whether it has the checks and balances necessary whenever people are vested with power over the lives of others.
But perhaps one needs some other objects in the foreground. This week we have seen dead children on Turkish beaches. Crowds — real crowds, representative of millions, not thousands – of helpless people, at Budapest railway station, being prevented from going further into Europe. Fresh victims being generated in Syria. More hundreds, maybe thousands, drowning in the Mediterranean.
It may be, as both Labor and the coalition pretend, that Pezzullo's agency has made Australia safe from, and thus not responsible for, such scenes being played out in Australia. If, after all, you stop the boats, no one can drown, surely. If you are consciously cruel to those who try, including children, you may deter someone getting into a boat and drowning, surely.
If you look the other way about what happens, you cannot be personally or morally responsible, can you? And anyway, isn't the principle of the thing — that not a drop of water can touch our beaches without our permission — a worthy thing of itself? An affirmation of those modern notions of sovereignty that Pezzullo is struggling to articulate? Not to mention the culture of fear and loathing which makes us feel so united, here in Team Australia.
If Jesus were around and not in Nauru, wouldn't He be standing, gun on hip, right alongside Pezzullo?