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Naunton's White Australia Policy March

A Department of Reactive Control Freaks

The Immigration Department has been in crisis since 1974

It is not a statement of hyperbole, exaggeration or political rhetoric to call senior operatives in the Immigration Department "a heinous bunch of fanatic, controlling and self-referential federal bureaucrats".

Image: Cover page of the sheet music booklet
of W. E. Naunton's White Australia March.

Over many decades, from the 1901 establishment of the White Australia Policy to its demise in the 1970s, immigration and foreign affairs officers wielded sheer unlimited and racist powers when targeting tens of thousands of 'non-Europeans' with ruthless extremist zeal, using its heinous 'dictation test' to manipulatively justify its inhumane deportation regime. Following the establishment of the Immigration Department in 1945, enforcement of the White Australia Policy became its domain.

This was the department former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam claimed was "beyond redemption" when he shut it down in 1974 after signing the death certificate for the White Australia Policy, and this was the department described by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as "ultra-conservative" and "racist", calling its policy proposals "pieces of barbarism" and its interventions "reactionary".

Whitlam's 1974 closure of the Immigration Department threw many of its senior officers into considerable turmoil, into an identity and relevancy crisis and depressive negativity but many core officers kept in touch with each other (see Mark Lopez - below).

Under the White Australia Policy, one of the Department's "target client groups" had been the "undesirable aliens" of "non-European" origin. Identification, Search, Apprehension and Capture, Control and Punishment - and ultimately banishment from Australia had been, for more than 70 years, the core strategies in dealing with this client group.

See Mark Lopez, The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian
Politics 1945-1975.
Melbourne University Press, 2000.

The White Australia Badge

When Fraser re-opened the Department in 1975, there might have been great relief all around, but how was it possible that this Department, having evoked just one year earlier Whitlam's exclamations of being "past its use-by date" and "beyond redemption", could simply find new life under Fraser without radical internal change and without a full Parliamentary inquiry?

One must assume that for the "immigration officers in crisis" the re-opening of the Immigration Department under Fraser was confirmation that their long-standing culture was found to be OK after all - even while their client target group was no longer its active focus. However, this vaccuum was filled within the next year, when from April 1976 onwards, asylum seeker boats from Vietnam started sailing into Darwin harbour, uninvited, unapproved, unchecked and without prior permission from the Immigration Department's 'Border Mandarins'.

There is good reason to adopt the thesis that senior officers in the Immigration Department, faced with a loss of purpose following the abolition of the White Australia Policy, acted in congruence with the deeply entrenched departmental culture in displacing their culture of zealotry, control and extreme punishment from undesirable non-Europeans to unauthorised boat arrivals.

Within two years of the first boat arrival, departmental policy writers proposed more than a dozen harsh and punitive policies to the Fraser government in its January and July 1979 Cabinet meetings. These proposals are discussed on our website here.

What's on this page:

This page reprints three media articles discussing the July 2012 Report into the performance of the Immigration Department by the Australian Public Service Commission. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship Capability Review offers up a damning indictment on the lack of professional standards in all functional areas in the Department. The report confirms that not one area of the Department performs to a sufficient standard of operation.

The fourth and final offering on this page puts the finger on the Immigration Department's totalitarian media control, where it uses notions of "client privacy" in collusion with senior media operatives to prevent the publication of any stories that show its extremist and punitive culture or stories that expose Australia's ongoing and disturbing breaches of many human rights conventions in its cruel detention practices.


3 October 2012: The Immigration Department's new media control - Just three months after ABC reporter Leigh Sales' July 2011 critical commentary, news broke that the Department of Immigration had informed Australian media outlets of its newly drafted media strategy. The new detention centre access rules were based on the media strategy in place at Guantanamo Bay.

30 September 2012: ASIO: now targeting kids and lying to the Parliament - For the first time in history, Australian spooks claim refugee children are national security risks, and it appears that ASIO tried to provide false claims to a Parliamentary Inquiry.

3 January 2012: Just how sick is the Immigration Department? - The Immigration Department claims that 'people are our business' on the stationery, but does fanatic control with inflexible rules govern its operations? The Department's slogan has no credibility when considering that its complex maze of rules and criteria are not only rigorously applied, but that they are applied without a skerrick of decency or moderation.

27 October 2005: The Kiwi who went to Baxter - Two plain clothed policemen greeted me at the gate. They asked me to accompany them. They assured me that we were just going up the road and back. I knew I had nothing more to worry about than an overlooked traffic fine so, with curiosity and without concern I complied. Ten minutes later I was being held at the Maribynong Detention Centre.

20 November 2005: Chris Rau: Try follow the money trail... - " thing I keep getting back to, and that all of us should emphasise, is the potential for a public outcry if you follow the money trail. Forget human rights; forget the abuses that are still going on ... people simply don't want to know."

27 August 2005: Don't ask too many questions: the story of DIMIA's cover-up of the Vivian Alvarez affair - this is a copy of a 2-part article from the Sydney Morning Herald, written by investigative reporter David Marr: "The lies that kept Vivian Alvarez hidden for years" and "The cover-up comes unstuck".

20 July 2005: David Marr and The Palmer Report - The Palmer Report, or the report of the Inquiry into the circumstances of the Immigration Detention of Cornelia Rau, is damning. And so is David Marrr's analysis from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Quick links:

Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.

Immigration review exposes risk of failure

The Age
January 2, 2013
Markus Mannheim

The crisis-ridden Immigration Department is poorly managed, its workers mistrust each other and its executives' financial illiteracy poses serious risks, an independent review has warned.

The frank report, written by a panel of government and business specialists, also describes a culture of buck-passing, in which few staff take responsibility for problems.

The review of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), overseen by the federal Public Service Commission, found weaknesses in each of the 10 areas it assessed and offered little praise for the leaders of the 10,000-strong workforce.

It warned the department remained at risk of "another high-profile failure" such as the illegal detention of Australian citizens Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, which prompted government inquiries in 2005.

Immigration's long-serving secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, left the post late last year to head the Agriculture Department. His replacement, Martin Bowles, said he accepted the findings and agreed there was "significant room for improvement".

"I am confident [the department] will be a better agency for our staff, for our clients and for the government as a result of this capability review."

The review team, led by the former mandarin Ken Matthews, acknowledged Immigration's work was complex and highly contentious compared with other agencies.

However, it found the department failed to plan or innovate effectively because it focused on reacting to crises.

It also said many senior executives believed "risks and issues are 'glossed over' to provide good news stories rather than delivering difficult messages".

The report told of a "heavily risk-averse" culture, in which basic decisions were "routinely escalated because there has been an excessive reliance on the risk-scanning intuition of a small number of senior people".

This "led to a low tolerance for error, with staff believing that their ideas will not be seriously considered by managers", it said.

While the department's mid-level executives were "proficient technical managers", their core management skills were "patchy", the report said.

"Managers, particularly [senior executives], do not always understand their financial management responsibilities, which poses serious risks."

Managers were also often unclear about their responsibilities, saying "they were not always sure who to go to and that 'there are so many fingers in the pie that no one owns the problem'."

The review found some public servants from other agencies had low regard for Immigration's senior executives, saying they were "not always present 'in the forums that matter', are slow to acknowledge risks and impacts on other portfolios, are not always open to ideas when consulting, and do not always represent the department as a whole".

A 2011 survey found 33 per cent of Immigration staff believed recruitment decisions were routinely not based on merit, a higher proportion than the public service average of 25 per cent.

The review said this "perception is discouraging and indicates mistrust among staff members".

Among its recommendations were greater support for managers and involving all staff, rather than a select few, "in the risk-scanning process".

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said the department had "made it very clear it made a number of changes" in response to the review.

"We're confident it will continue to make those improvements," he said.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant.

Immigration's young talent drowning in a sea of finger-pointing

"Too often, senior public servants refuse to allow even their mid-level executives to do the work for which they were hired, and instead opt to vet and second-guess every detail."

Canberra Times
January 5, 2013
Markus Mannheim

When divvying out the loot of political office, the immigration portfolio is known widely as the ''shit sandwich''. Sure, it has status: its minister sits in cabinet, commands a large workforce and budget, and inevitably becomes one of the highest-profile politicians in the land. But few reputations escape unscathed from the torrent of bad news the portfolio generates, especially since Australians went berserk over boat people in 2001.

It's not that the Immigration Department's work always involves human misery; most of it doesn't. Some of its staff regularly witness the kind of raw joy that most of us only rarely experience: the cathartic relief of a refugee given sanctuary from hell; the hard-working migrant who achieves success on a scale for which they'd never dared hope; or the genuine pride of a new citizen who has fallen in love with this country.

Yet these are not the tales with which the public associates the department. Nor does good news of this type resonate with the insular, swinging voters who dominate the politics of marginal electorates. These insecure, downwards-envying Australians resent what the department does: it lets foreigners ''steal'' their jobs and it ''pampers'' refugees who they feel have no right to be here. Neither of our main political parties bother to tackle misconceptions about the portfolio; they simply compete to appeal to the mob.

I often wonder how this toxic debate affects Immigration Department staff. Late last year, the Public Service Commission released an independent review of the department's capability, which hints at some of the damage. It found the workforce suffers from a crisis mentality, flitting from one calamity to the next but rarely planning to avoid them. Its culture ''is heavily risk averse'', with basic decisions ''routinely escalated because there has been an excessive reliance on the risk-scanning intuition of a small number of senior people''.

Senior executives too readily passed the buck or didn't bother telling other work areas about important events. There was ''a lack of clarity regarding accountabilities and responsibilities in many areas ... people said that they were not always sure who to go to and that 'there are so many fingers in the pie that no one owns the problem' ''.

The review also noted problems that may well apply to many other agencies. It warned that staff doubted recruitment decisions were meritorious and felt ''they are not given permission to innovate, which inhibits their motivation to generate new ideas without the freedom to fail''.

When critical reports such as this emerge, it's easy to blame the department's secretary, which, for much of the past 7 years, was Andrew Metcalfe. Metcalfe, who has since left to head the Agriculture Department, deliberately avoided delegating tasks and encouraged staff to refer decisions to him and his deputies. Under Metcalfe, the department's catchcry became ''escalate, escalate, escalate''; anything to avoid another high-profile humiliation, such as the illegal detention of Australian residents Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon.

Yet this style of management was precisely what the secretary was told to create. Metcalfe was dropped into immigration in 2005 in the wake of the Rau and Solon scandals. Former police commissioners Mick Palmer and Nick Comrie's inquiries into those two tragic cases recommended removing power from junior officers and much stronger oversight and involvement from the department's most senior executives. In short, the two inquiries urged immigration's workforce to become more risk averse and its top managers to be more controlling; which is precisely what the latest review has criticised.

Under Metcalfe, the department was clearly overzealous in applying Palmer and Comrie's will. This was apparent as far back as 2008, when Elizabeth Proust's review of immigration warned Metcalfe that he was taking on too much responsibility.

''People externally commented that if they had a problem, especially an urgent problem, they would contact the secretary and be confident that he would solve it,'' Proust said. ''While external people are reassured that they have a ready point of escalation, it does make for a risk-averse organisation, knowing that the secretary will be turned to if all else fails. Such an approach was necessary in the months after Palmer and Comrie, when there was little trust in the whole organisation. It is now time to review delegations, formal and informal, which will send a positive message of trust in people in more junior positions.''

It seems this didn't happen. Nonetheless, it's unfair to blame solely an administrator - Metcalfe - for a problem that is rooted in politics.

The detention of Rau, a schizophrenic who insisted to authorities that she was German, was an avoidable mistake, yet it was also, to an extent, understandable. The deportation of Solon, however, and the callousness with which immigration staff treated her, was unforgivable. The relevant officers' conduct was clearly the result of what Palmer described as a ''culture that is overly self-protective and defensive, a culture largely unwilling to challenge organisational norms or to engage in genuine self-criticism or analysis''.

Palmer and Comrie were right to say immigration needed to redress this culture. It's less apparent, however, that the entire department needed to undergo the massive overhaul that followed, and which it is still undergoing. It's rather more likely this was a politically driven overreaction: part of then immigration minister Amanda Vanstone's attempt to deflect blame from herself onto the officials who served her.

The result today is a department so paranoid about mistakes that - despite having a workforce of more than 10,000, mostly university-educated staff - only a handful of its executives are trusted with meaningful decisions. It's an incredible waste of talent and demeans the many bright recruits who join the organisation.

The latest review recommends ''mobilising the intelligence of all ... staff members in the risk-scanning process''. It's a point that all government agencies, not only immigration, need to take on board. Too often, senior public servants refuse to allow even their mid-level executives to do the work for which they were hired, and instead opt to vet and second-guess every detail. It's enfeebling and demoralising.

Yet the bureaucracy's damaging, risk-shy culture is not only the fault of fearful senior executives. Every time politicians, or the public, seize on a public servant's mistake and trumpet it as evidence of widespread incompetence, they discourage the bureaucracy from trying something new, or from trusting a junior officer with greater responsibility.

The Rau and Solon scandals were no mere gaffes; they demanded serious introspection. And, as a result of the Palmer-Comrie inquiries, it's unlikely that either of those events could take place today.

But how will we react when the next immigration scandal unfolds? Given the extraordinary political heat that the portfolio attracts, it's almost certain that we - our political representatives, the media and voters across party lines - will use it to score a point or to demand a scalp, rather than to calmly ask ''how can we avoid this happening again?'' And in doing so, we'll no doubt contribute to making the department a little bit more dysfunctional than it already is.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant.

Immigration: Gatekeepers in disarray

Identity fraud is rife and the Department of Immigration is failing to crack down.

Canberra Times
January 7, 2013
Russell Skelton

Sulphurous politics surrounding asylum seeker policy and the illusory pursuit of ways to turn back the boats have restricted rational debate over troubling and complex border protection issues.

In particular, there has been little rigorous scrutiny of Department of Immigration and Citizenship mandarins and 8576 public servants (plus 2000 contractors and locally engaged staff) all charged with overseeing policy.

Last week a Public Service Commission review of the department came to the troubling conclusion it was poorly managed, suffered from a culture of buck-passing and failed to plan for or anticipate crises that engulfed it.

Managers, the review concluded, were unclear about their responsibilities, ''heavily risk averse'' and mistrustful of superiors.

The review could have added that key departmental divisions were shockingly under-resourced, computer systems were incompatible with those of other key enforcement agencies and that staff ''cross-pollination'' with other departments had seriously eroded expertise.

While the public debate has focused almost exclusively on the drama of the absurd - how to blockade Australia from the armada carrying fugitives from conflict zones - it has ignored a central issue: whether existing security and processing systems are adequate to deal with growing and complex issues such as identity fraud.

Identity fraud is not an issue exclusive to the thousands of boat arrivals processed without papers. Troubling incidents involving visa and passport fraud are constantly before the courts: bogus foreign students cycling through our education system on false papers, African nationals entering on stolen or borrowed passports, drug dealers and sex workers posing as tourists.

Last year the ABC's Four Corners program revealed that ''Captain Emad'' and six other people smugglers were granted Australian residency after arriving by boat with no identity papers. The report provided a rare glimpse into the subterranean world of people smuggling here and systemic failings in asylum seeker processing.

Identity fraud is an issue Department of Immigration bureaucrats prefer not to think about or hear publicly discussed as it goes to the very core of their responsibilities. Neither do refugee activists, who tend to see all asylum seekers as genuine victims of persecution, or the industry of immigration agents submitting, withdrawing and resubmitting visa applications when claims are disputed.

With political pressure on the Gillard government to decide asylum seeker claims expediently, especially security checks, processing has been compromised. With co-operation between Canberra, Kabul, Islamabad, Delhi and Baghdad virtually non-existent, identifying people has become something of a guessing game. Bureaucrats know this and prefer to look the other way.

In November 2011 and February 2012, I lodged freedom of information requests with the department seeking documents detailing visa fraud. My questions were based in part on judicial proceedings that suggested significant fraud. They were also based on information obtained from the Road Traffic Authority that showed visa holders where popping up in their system with multiple identities and multiple passports.

Initially, I was told documents had been identified and would be processed in due course. Months went by and nothing. With the department in breach of its statutory obligations to supply the information within 60 days, I protested only to be told that staff shortages meant the documents could not be processed for release.

Many months passed. After complaints to the Australian Information Commission it was revealed that FOI requests were piled up at the door of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, an astonishing breach of the spirit if not the letter of the act. After more prodding by the Information Commissioner, the department finally claimed my requests were rejected because the documents could no longer be found or did not exist.

What happened between the time when the documents had been located and now was anybody's guess. Was this buck-passing, risk-averse behaviour or simply bad management? Take your pick. As a reporter with some experience of how bureaucracies work, I suspect cover-up. The Department of Foreign Affairs had located similar documents as a result of a separate FOI request, but refused to release them on the grounds of operational security.

The behaviour of Department of Immigration bureaucrats in this matter neatly squares with criticism of the department by the Public Service Commission review. From experience, I believe there exists within sections of the public service a fierce survival instinct that takes hold whenever a journalist phones about something sensitive.

It's an instinct that often involves concealing the realities of a situation or decisions that may reflect poorly on bureaucrats or the system administration they are responsible for. Many mandarins are also anxious to protect their relationship with political masters, believing patronage is the surest way to the top.

It is ironic that when it comes to boat arrivals, and the mass relocation of asylum seekers into the community or to Nauru and elsewhere, the department is diligent in releasing information. The intense point-scoring between government and opposition and the Greens over boat arrivals and detentions has led to greater transparency and openness in that area.

But that may be more pantomime than reality. Fundamental issues remain about the department's capacity, capability and conduct when it comes to the screening, movement and settlement of new arrivals.

People, who arrive by air with false identity papers, or by boat with no identity papers, should face far more rigorous scrutiny than presently exists. This is not to ring alarm bells by suggesting that every person entering Australia with false papers is a potential terrorist. History tells us that this is not the case.

What it does suggest, and court lists confirm, is that serious flaws in the system need to be urgently addressed with appropriate resources and competent systems to establish the identity of people entering Australia. We need to know who the people are and whether they are bone fide refugees, economic migrants, people smugglers or sex workers.

And it is not enough for the minister's office to simply say in response to the Public Service Commission review that a ''number of changes have been made'' and that the crisis-prone department will continue to make improvements. A far more encouraging response would have been a comprehensive bureaucratic overhaul with commitments to transparency, accountability and openness. FOI is there to serve the public, not defensive bureaucrats hiding in the shadows.

Nick Riemer: No News From Manus

New restrictions have left asylum seekers on Manus Island unable to communicate with their supporters about the conditions of detention. Who will tell the stories that journalists won't touch, asks advocate Nick Riemer.

New Matilda
15 Jan 2013
By Nick Riemer

Since December, the Immigration department has increasingly censored refugees' ability to communicate with the outside world. Its petty and vindictive restrictions on this basic freedom are likely to deepen the ongoing mental health crisis within detention, both offshore and domestically. On Sunday, three Iraqi men made serious suicide attempts on Manus Island and up to five others self-harmed.

In December, the Salvation Army, in charge of supplying "humanitarian support" services on Nauru, substantially reduced the amount of time refugees can spend on the internet. Their specific target was an Iranian detainee, Mahdi, who had been publishing detailed accounts of developments on the island on a Facebook page often consulted by refugee advocates and the media.

Since the crackdown, detainees have told the Refugee Action Coalition that security guards now directly supervise internet sessions of detainees seen as ringleaders. The amount of information on Facebook has plummeted.

Similar repression has also occurred on Manus. In early January, refugees did exactly the same thing as thousands of Australians over the Christmas break: they sent friends pictures of where they were staying. But instead of holiday snaps, the Manus refugees' photos, which were taken with the cameras on DIAC-issued tablet computers, showed the spartan boxes in which they now live, with no closable windows or doors for privacy or shelter from the oppressive heat and malaria-bearing insects.

These pictures were the first time the public has had the chance to assess the actual conditions endured by transferees. Amnesty International, for instance, had been prevented from taking photographs on its November visit to Nauru. As a result, the Manus pictures garnered substantial attention.

This publicity was not to DIAC's liking. In what they were told was explicit punishment, Manus detainees were deprived of all internet and phone contact for three days. Since then, the tablet cameras have been disabled, and detainees' web allocation has been more than halved to only three hours per week. Detainees also believe that their phone calls are now being monitored.

Increased restrictions on refugees have not been confined to Australia's offshore camps. At Villawood detention centre last week access had been cut to the refugee rights website The blackout coincided with Chilout's advocacy for Ranjini, a pregnant refugee in Villawood currently facing lifelong detention after receiving a negative assessment from ASIO.

No sooner was Chilout restored than access to Facebook was blocked. At a click of a mouse on Thursday night last week, asylum seekers in Villawood were deprived of one of their principal means of communicating and socialising with the outside world. Detainees believe that the ban was due to their use of the platform to communicate with advocates about the situation in Villawood. Access was only restored on Monday.

If refugees are being successfully gagged, it is at least partly because society at large is not advocating for their right to communicate.

Public indifference to refugees is strikingly reflected by the mainstream media. Often, advocates have difficulty even getting journalists interested in major developments. The recent suicide of a Tamil man on a bridging visa received only minimal media attention.

This cannot simply be explained as a January holiday effect; the mass hunger strikes on Nauru last year were also patchily reported at best. No journalist, to my knowledge, maintains regular phone contact with detainees, even though, as DIAC has acknowledged, it would be easy to obtain detainees' mobile numbers either directly or from advocates. With such slack coverage of refugee and detention issues, it is little wonder that DIAC has a free hand to arbitrarily silence refugees when it chooses to do so.

While News Limited drives a relentless editorial assault on refugees in the tabloid media and The Australian, there is no countervailing force prepared to report and analyse refugee issues objectively. It is left to online and alternative sources like New Matilda or The Global Mail to report on refugee policy for what it is -- an acute, rolling human rights crisis leaving a trail of death, despair and broken lives, all at gargantuan taxpayer expense.

A rare insight into the relation between journalists and DIAC was provided at an Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) forum in November on media access to detention centres.

The forum's star, Sandi Logan, DIAC's national communications manager, continually emphasised that media restrictions were a result of DIAC's "duty of care" to detainees, its determination to safeguard their privacy, and its general commitment to dignity and respect.

It is impossible to accept these claims. As the chief spokesperson for a department responsible for the mass arbitrary imprisonment of innocent people, the idea that DIAC is geared towards any kind of care or respect for detainees does not bear scrutiny.

However, when refugee advocates, myself included, asked Logan to answer that basic contradiction, our attempts were repeatedly hosed down by the forum chair. Apparently this was not the appropriate place to challenge Logan on the central premise of his argument.

Remarkably, Julian Disney, chair of the Australian Press Council, even agreed with Logan that DIAC was justified in imposing some media restrictions, including vetting footage, in order to avoid "sur place" refugee claims -- that is, claims for protection on the grounds that being identified as an asylum seeker in Australia makes persecution likely back at home. Logan had emphasised this as one of the main reasons DIAC needs to limit media access to detention.

Disney did support more media access and less departmental control over filming and interviews overall, provided journalists had informed consent. In obtaining this he saw a role for refugee advocates, who he said could verify consent had been given. But it did not seem to have occurred to him that the occasional sur place claim is well worth the possibility of open reporting on a matter of crucial public interest. Disney shared, apparently, the government's position that, in the sur place case, avoiding refugee claims trumps the public's right to know.

The response to the Manus pictures demonstrates unambiguously that it is not sur place appeals that DIAC is worried about, but simply the possibility that the public could see what conditions for refugees are really like. The leaked pictures contained no images of adults' faces, and just one of a child's, half-obscured. The risk that they could trigger sur place claims was therefore minimal -- yet refugees were still punished for sending them.

Logan had every reason to congratulate himself on his performance at the forum. In front of a progressive audience of refugee advocates and members of the "liberal" media, he projected the image of a reasonable and fair-minded public servant who essentially shared journalists' commitment to open reporting. The only journalist at the forum who refused to accept Logan's claim of respect for refugees' dignity was NM contributing editor Wendy Bacon.

Neither was the full extent of the human rights abuses that result from Australian policy ever honestly acknowledged. Leading up to the forum, Nauru detainees had engaged in mass hunger-strikes, protests, self-harm incidents and suicide attempts.

Yet the strongest description that panellist Dylan Welch, formerly a Fairfax journalist, could make was that they were "a bunch of people ... regardless of the veracity of their claims, who are having a pretty horrible time".

After I tried in the question period to call Logan on his claim to be motivated by respect for refugees' dignity, Welch chose to intervene to congratulate Logan on his presence at the forum, thereby counteracting the criticism and masking Logan's failure to respond.

Welch's decision to offer an unsolicited defence of Immigration's chief publicist rather than to press the crucial question going to the heart of Logan's credibility took only a moment, but it exemplified in miniature something deep about the "liberal" media's role in shaping Australian refugee politics.

Despite some rare exceptions, none of whom work for mainstream outlets, the overall role of the journalism profession in Australia has been to provide ideological cover to Australia's human rights abuses, by ignoring, minimising, justifying or only offering weak or inessential criticisms of the effects of government policy. History will judge it harshly for its complacency.

On the evidence of November's ACIJ forum, what is lacking, even in supposedly progressive sections of the mainstream media, is any desire to challenge the Gillard Government's lies for what they are. Refugees currently muzzled in detention will have to look elsewhere for relief from the gag tightening around them.