Minister in spotlight over au pair visas

Mr Peter Dutton has become the unsmiling face of enforcement, defending Australia's harsh offshore detention camps, delaying citizenship applications, and arguing for cuts in overall immigration.
Mr Peter Dutton has become the unsmiling face of enforcement, defending Australia's harsh offshore detention camps, delaying citizenship applications, and arguing for cuts in overall immigration.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Aussie Senate to hear whether immigration chief Peter Dutton overstepped his powers

SYDNEY • When a suicidal 10-year-old boy in an offshore detention camp asked to come to Australia for psychiatric care, Mr Peter Dutton's answer was no.

When an Australian combat veteran requested a refugee visa for his Afghan interpreter, Mr Dutton - Australia's top immigration official - also refused.

But when an Italian au pair, who worked for a former colleague, needed a reprieve from deportation, Mr Dutton obliged. It was at least the second European au pair for whom he made an exception in 2015, calling the visa a "humanitarian act".

Critics across Australia are calling it something else: hypocrisy that reveals an unjust immigration system.

"I'm totally disgusted that the minister has used his powers to intervene in those cases," said Mr Jason Scanes, 41, a former army captain who has campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get a visa for his Afghan interpreter. "I'm just asking for a fair process and a fair go."

Australia has always struggled with who belongs. The first British settlers slaughtered the indigenous population, and xenophobia has shaped the nation since its earliest days when the government restricted migration to whites.

In some ways, Mr Dutton, 47, a former police officer who has been in Parliament since 2001, is simply the latest in a long line of Australian leaders to seize on concerns about foreigners and security to advance their political careers.

But since taking over the immigration portfolio in 2014, he has also made the job uniquely his own.

Promoted last year to oversee even more of the country's security apparatus as Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Dutton has become the country's unsmiling face of enforcement, defending Australia's harsh offshore detention camps, delaying citizenship applications, and arguing for cuts in overall immigration.

The approach has won accolades from conservatives at home and abroad, including United States President Donald Trump. Just two weeks ago, Mr Dutton also nearly became prime minister, leading a party coup only to be defeated by Mr Scott Morrison, another former immigration minister known for strict enforcement.

Mr Dutton has not ruled out another go. With Australia's Senate holding hearings this week on whether he appropriately approved the au pair visas, he has defended his decisions with righteous indignation. "I am a person of integrity," Mr Dutton said in a recent radio interview. "I've never been compromised. I never will."

But legal experts and former officials argue that the trouble with the country's immigration system extends beyond one man. Few other developed democracies imbue a single elected official with so much power and so little public oversight.

Australia has given "God powers" to its immigration ministers, legal experts said, allowing Mr Dutton to make the country's already opaque border control and immigration system even more vulnerable to cronyism, secrecy and abuse.

"Our migration system has never been as fair or transparent as it claims when it comes to race or disability," said Dr Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University. "The treatment of the au pairs combined with the dreadful tales of traumatised children on Nauru underscores the juxtaposition of this kind of leniency for some, with cruelty to others."

"Immigration policy always had this duality," said Dr Gwenda Tavan, an immigration historian at La Trobe University in Melbourne. "Australian officials for successive generations knew they needed people to populate the country but they also wanted only certain types of people."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2018, with the headline 'Minister in spotlight over au pair visas'. Print Edition | Subscribe