Chris Wallace
Why we need a Home Affairs royal commission

Defeating the imperial overlords’ quest for the Ashes via a rain-soaked draw in the fourth Test at Old Trafford was the signal political event for many Australians this week. Never have so many eyes been glued so tightly for so long to an overseas weather report.

It was an uncharacteristically subdued victory. England strengthened its squad with better bowlers in the third and fourth Tests and took it up to the Australians. Australia did well enough earlier in the series to keep the Ashes by default, helped by lucky rain in Manchester.

Captain Pat Cummins was criticised for a lack of attacking spirit. Why wait 10 overs to take the new ball in Manchester, especially when the team had no spinner and was bowling quicks? Where was the energy?

The Brits, conversely, loved the “Bazball” approach of the England team, which at times jagged into ugly hyper-aggression with unmissable colonial overtones.

England bowler Ollie Robinson’s foul sledging when he dismissed Usman Khawaja in the first Test will not be quickly forgotten. Nor will the hateful braying of the Lord’s Long Room toffs against the Australian team as they made their way to lunch after stumping England batsman Jonny Bairstow in the second Test.

But who won? We did.

Australian politics had something of the same air this week. The very low bar of not losing the Fadden byelection the previous week, and the evident polling success of the aggressive, colonial-tinged “No” team in the Voice campaign, has buoyed Peter Dutton’s Coalition.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stood up creditably to a few Ben Fordham bouncers as the 2GB host bowled hard for the Voice “No” team, but he was otherwise Cummins-style quiet during the week.

No one in the “Yes” team’s batting line-up is scoring runs fast enough to be confident of victory.

As every set of opinion polls deepens gloom about the prospects for a “Yes” win, hopes are pinned on some random factor emerging to deliver the desired result – a late storm of “Yes” support saving the day, the way rain saved the fourth Test for Australia in Manchester.

Albanese wrested power from the Coalition with an unflashy, plaudit-free campaign from opposition. It has given him immense confidence in his ability to prevail in a dogged contest.

So far, that same approach in the Voice campaign appears not to be enough to defeat the aggressors trying to bowl the Voice out, and Albanese’s political standing with it. This will be a matter for close attention inside Labor in coming weeks as the initial hopes for the referendum dim with declining support.

That aside, the post-Fadden opinion polls show Albanese and Labor continue to enjoy strong, widespread support, and Dutton and the opposition don’t.

The Fadden win and the momentum in the “No” campaign have generated a false sense of assurance in the federal Coalition, comparable to the fantasy that gripped the Victorian opposition in the lead-up to their most recent crushing defeat at the hands of Premier Daniel Andrews, aided by media talking up the Liberals’ position.

Across the Albanese government, everyone knows their greatest political asset is Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and that, in reality, the Coalition under Dutton’s leadership remains in the deepest political winter.

That’s why Albanese will have weighed carefully the opportunity opened up on Tuesday by a report in the Nine newspapers that said the Department of Home Affairs, when Dutton was minister, awarded a $9 million contract to businessman Mozammil “Mozu” Bhojani. Weeks earlier, the Australian Federal Police had warned Dutton that Bhojani was under investigation for bribery.

Dutton’s department later extended the contracts, even though Bhojani by then had actually been charged with bribery, for which he was later convicted.

On Tuesday Albanese replied with economy and restraint to a media question about the claims. In a small voice reflecting the gravity of the issue, he said the opposition leader was obliged to explain what had happened “on his watch”.

“These are serious allegations … and he needs to explain what has occurred here,” Albanese said. “Because the [Australian] people deserve an explanation about these events. This is taxpayers’ money.”

The claims in the report are explosive – not least because Dutton is the person Liberals are putting forward as Australia’s alternative prime minister. Yet they made barely a ripple in the wider body politic, partly because Labor is being so cautious about them. Albanese faces a genuine dilemma.

Canberra is still reeling from the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme report, where one illegal program harmed half a million Australians via perfidious, welfare-bashing Coalition ministers and public servants trained by them into poodle-like compliance.

By comparison, the building picture of the Department of Home Affairs under Dutton is a multifarious font of corruption claims – so many that giving it the attention it deserves could entirely consume the new National Anti-Corruption Commission’s resources to the detriment of other urgent inquiries.

What about a royal commission? Into what exactly?

Some argue it should be into Australia’s offshore detention system. Yet that would fail to capture other rotten elements of the Home Affairs Department’s performance, like the alleged exploitation of “weak immigration controls” that allow Albanian crime gangs to operate in Australia.

What about a royal commission into the operations of the Department of Home Affairs as a whole? Given the plethora of serious claims on multiple fronts, along with the dire state of its visa processing operation, that not only seems warranted but imperative.

Just as the Thodey review of the Australian Public Service was conducted with robo-debt happening under its nose, passed over with one sole mention in the 2019 report, the Parkinson review of Australia’s visa system commissioned by current Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil made no obvious dent in the departmental pillow.

It took a royal commission to get to the bottom of robo-debt and it would likely take a royal commission to get to the bottom of the cesspool that Home Affairs seems to be.

But is Albanese up for it?

The department’s record and the continuing run of corruption claims during the Coalition’s last three terms in office must disturb Minister O’Neil. How exactly are things different and better given the same people who ran the department when Scott Morrison was Immigration minister and Peter Dutton was Home Affairs minister are running Home Affairs for her now?

Behind all this is an even bigger worry. That is, how to rebuild departments cowed and hollowed out for years under the Coalition, and to do it fast enough for Labor to be able to do what it wants to get done as a government – not just in Home Affairs but across the board.

The post-Fadden polling unequivocally shows Labor’s own voters, as well as the wider pool who put Albanese into office, are sticking with the government and not drifting to the Coalition.

At the same time, there’s a growing hunger for Albanese to grasp the opportunities and responsibilities before him with more vigour, or to get up-front and forward Labor frontbenchers who will – in the interest not only of saving the sinking Voice campaign but making more runs, more visibly, across government.

Otherwise, like the Australian men’s cricket team, flatness could become one of the defining features of the Albanese government, even in success.

Labor’s 2023 national conference in Brisbane is less than three weeks away. There was a foretaste at the National Press Club on Tuesday when the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) national secretary Zach Smith launched the union’s campaign for a 40 per cent super profits tax on the top 0.3 per cent of companies, to fund a “bold” solution to Australia’s housing crisis.

Smith was like a southerly buster: big, fresh, ebullient, forceful. Asked about the super tax proposal at a doorstop, Albanese didn’t deign to respond.

Smith’s energy was compelling, though, and whether you agree with it or not, the proposal wasn’t crazy. Australians believe the state has a role and want the state to play it, he said, and he’s right – in principle, if not necessarily in relation to the CFMEU proposal specifically.

The CFMEU campaign will elbow out a bigger space in which the Albanese government can play,  if it wants to and chooses to make bigger things happen. 

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "The case for a royal commission into Home Affairs".

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