That’s Peter Dutton, then immigration minister, in the official document by which he intervened to allow an au pair to enter the country.
And what an incredible sentence it is! A humanitarian act. An individual with ongoing needs. A humane and generous society. So … a tourist visa? What humanitarian situation serious enough to require intervention from the immigration minister himself can be relieved by a spot of tourism?
The whole thing is absurd. Not truly scandalous, given Dutton acted within his legal power and that politicians doing favours for people is hardly unprecedented. But absurd and important for precisely that reason. This episode reveals just how hypocritical and disingenuous our approach on immigration in this country really is.
The story here isn’t that Dutton did a favour for a mate (or a mate’s mate, or a Liberal Party donor). It’s that in this tiny episode, Dutton revealed himself to be happy to violate the very principles on which he has based his entire position on immigration. Dutton’s political trade is based squarely on being a tough, uncompromising applier of rules; a kind of maniacal preserver of order. He will not be bowed or be swayed except in the most extreme cases, and even then, probably not.
Sob stories tend to find their tears turned to ice upon making contact with him. You could be a suicidal 10-year-old kid on Nauru who desperately needed psychiatric care. Dutton would refuse to let you come to Australia to access it. Indeed, he’d spend plenty of taxpayer dollars fighting in court to stop it, until finally a judge ordered him to relent. You could even be an Aussie Digger, desperate to get an Afghan man who acted as your interpreter into Australia as a refugee because his life is now in danger after having helped Australian troops. Dutton won’t even meet you to talk about it.
In a perverse way, it’s the very heartlessness of it that’s the appeal. Dutton believes in the law. He believes in policing it harshly. It’s not humanitarian causes that move him. It’s people who don’t obey and respect our rules.
That’s why the key aspect of the au pair saga is the bit that’s receiving the least attention. Namely that Dutton has personally waved through someone who has broken our laws and was about to do so again. Moreover, he was told he was doing this. But he chose to ignore the advice of his own department. Don’t take my word for it. Here are the department’s: “There are clear indications that [name redacted] is intending to work in Australia and thus, the grant of a visitor visa is of high risk.” What were these indications that she was about to work illegally under a tourist visa? “The ABF [Border Force] also notes that [name redacted] has been counselled previously with respect to work restrictions, when suspicions with respect to her intentions were aroused on her previous arrival. On 31OCT 2015 she also advised ABF officers of her intention to work during her intended stay in Australia on this occasion.”
So, this au pair had clearly been flagged before. A source familiar with the case told my colleagues at The Project she had been warned over her previous tourist visa that she shouldn’t do paid work on that visa, and that if she did, she would be banned from Australia for three years. That’s why she was detained when she tried to enter the country a few months later.
The source says the au pair simply told the Border Force about the arrangement: accommodation in exchange for babysitting, cooking and riding the family horses. The officers also found information on her devices confirming this, and making them strongly suspicious she was going to be paid money as well.
Separately, Dutton was told by email that there was detail “which does not support the minister intervening”. Dutton nonetheless intervened. His insistence that all this is unremarkable because he has intervened in hundreds of immigration cases simply sidesteps the remarkable features of this case.
It ignores that it is actually very rare for a minister to intervene for the sake of a tourism visa. It ignores that this rare intervention was made for someone who had already flouted the law. And it ignores that it was for someone apparently determined to do so again. A source close to the Immigration Department told us it is utterly humiliating for staff to be put in the situation of allowing people who have broken the law back into the country. I’d imagine that’s especially true for staff working under someone like Dutton, who has them primed to regard that as the highest sin.
I don’t know the story of this woman. Maybe she really does have unique humanitarian circumstances that would melt my heart. After all, I have nothing against her. But is this what our humanitarian cases look like? Is the bar really set so that the Iranian asylum seeker nearing death who has broken no laws cannot even be allowed into the country to access medical treatment, but a French woman simply must be allowed to be an au pair if we are to be a “humane and generous society”?
Is there some principle being applied consistently that accounts for both cases? Or can we now admit that this posturing of law and order, of national sovereignty, of the solemn duty to banish “unlawful arrivals” is just so much bullshit, conveniently dropped for the right kind of people?
I’m not saying this is the scandal of the decade. I suspect this will all soon pass without much cost to Dutton and that’s probably fair enough. But if it passes without a clear verdict of hypocrisy, not just on Dutton but on the way we frame our public discussion of immigration, it will only be because we’ve long since abandoned any approach to the subject that has anything to do with principles.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist and a presenter on The Project.