The concept of “ministerial responsibility” means, among other things, that ministers are held accountable for what they say – right?
But if you are the immigration minister in the Coalition government, you can get away with outrageous slurs and claims without suffering any seeming damage. At least that’s the experience of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.
We were reminded of this by the release last week of a further report, commissioned by the Immigration Department and done by Christopher Doogan (a lawyer with private and public sector experience), which deals with the government’s 2014 expulsion of a group of Save the Children Australia (SCA) workers from Nauru.
The report backs up the Moss inquiry’s earlier findings, indicating that suspicions the SCA personnel had been fomenting trouble were unsubstantiated, preferable process was not followed, and the removal of the workers was unjustified.
“The information available at the time the removal clause was activated did not warrant issuing the removal letter,” the report says. If senior departmental officers believed there had been breaches by the SCA employees “a reasonable course of action would have been to notify SCA of the claims and request SCA to investigate whether there was any substance to them”.
It was not just the expulsions themselves that cast a highly damaging slur on SCA. Then-minister Morrison used a megaphone to reinforce the message in a news conference at the time; the story had already been leaked to a favourite Morrison outlet, The Daily Telegraph.
Morrison said service providers were “employed to do a job not to be political activists”. “Making false claims and worse – allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests – is also completely unacceptable, whatever their political views or whatever their agendas,” he said.
But after the Moss report, Morrison declined to apologise, saying: “I made no allegations; I referred allegations for a proper inquiry”.
Doogan recommended that “to remedy the overall conclusion I have reached that the issue of the removal letter was not justified”, negotiations should be entered into to identify losses experienced by SCA and the affected staff.
Nothing, however, can fully make up for the impact of the initial attack by the government. Vindication and compensation long after usually do not totally heal such a wound.
For their parts, the Immigration Department and the government have tried to minimise the attention the Doogan report gets, as well as being as secretive as possible to protect those responsible.
The report was made public last Friday in a classic exercise of “putting out the trash” at a dead news time. The document is extremely heavily redacted, in terms of names and much of the content, so it is impossible to know its detail.
Current minister Dutton has not commented on the report – it’s a departmental matter, you see. The view that ministers are responsible for departments’ actions – at least major ones – is apparently very old-fashioned.
Morrison, now treasurer, is well removed, and there is little interest in grilling him about his past comments. In interviews on Sky, 3AW and 2GB on Monday he was not quizzed about his pugilistic stand in the Save the Children affair.
Contrition is not forthcoming – so far SCA has not received an apology for those workers being marched off Nauru for no good reason.
In the context of apologies, it is worth noting how quick Dutton was to say sorry for an offensive text about her that he mistakenly sent journalist Sam Maiden in the Jamie Briggs scandal.
In contrast, there has been no apology by Dutton to Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, whom he trashed last year over her claim that she was spied on while in Nauru. Dutton said she was an “embarrassment to our country”. Hanson-Young’s allegations turned out to be true.
Dutton saw Hanson-Young as a soft target, and was cavalier at the time and no doubt later about whether what he said was right or wrong. But he knew Malcolm Turnbull would come down on his head if he didn’t apologise to Maiden.
Negotiations with SCA started a few weeks ago – it is assumed on the basis of the Doogan report which the government has had for some time – and no doubt eventually there will be some compensation.
But the government has already added insult to the injury it inflicted by its treatment of the SCA workers. With SCA’s contract to provide services on Nauru running out late last year, the tender for the new contract was cast in such a way that SCA was ineligible to apply. The contract went to Broadspectrum (the new name for Transfield Services), which runs the centre – just further reducing the already minimal transparency of what happens on Nauru.
Turnbull should ensure there is a formal apology – delivered at ministerial level – to SCA for what happened in 2014. This should not wait for the compensation negotiations to conclude.
More importantly, Turnbull should be facing up to the challenge of the future of the people held on Nauru and Manus Island. His failure to do so thus far is receiving too little public scrutiny.