In a star-studded field of dysfunctional federal government departments it is difficult to nominate the standout performer.
Customs and Border Protection is beset with serious corruption and a declining ability to check incoming cargo for illegal firearms and drugs.
The Australian Crime Commission apparently sees more danger in performance-enhancing supplements than illegal drugs, suburban gunbattles and spiralling organised crime.
In what should be a relatively straightforward portfolio protecting the nation from asylum-seekers and “queue jumpers”, the department has managed to become the Fawlty Towers of the global immigration community.
Unlike the US we don’t have tens of thousands of Mexican nationals camped on the borders waiting for an opportunity to enter illegally.
Unlike Britain, we don’t face the unintended consequences of EU agreements that have loosened traditional border controls. We face no obligations other than international refugee agreements. Indeed, our isolation should be our greatest strength and a natural barrier to passive invasion by illegal immigrants.
We also have fewer illegal immigrants arriving than most other nations and that should mean detecting, detaining and processing them should be a relatively simple operation. But with a government that was, until last week, handcuffed to an increasingly irrational Greens party policy on immigration, as well as pandering to every fringe group connected to the immigration gravy train, simple ideas quickly become difficult and we now appear to have chaos, from the bottom to the top.
On April 19, 2011, increasingly worried NSW Police held a desktop exercise with staff at Villawood to test the staff’s capabilities handling public order incidents. A scenario was put forward of the detention centre being torched during a riot and they were asked for an operational solution.
According to evidence given to the Senate select committee, the staff said: “We would open the gates up”. Which begs the question: “And then what?”
NSW Police suggested a plan to remove the detainees from danger in buses under police escort to another commonwealth property at nearby Holsworthy. The scenario was dismissed by Immigration officials as “unrealistic” because “the situation would never arise”.
Lo and behold, just 24 hours later, the unrealistic scenario occurred. What ensued looked like an unscreened episode of Fawlty Towers. A few inmates gained entry to the roof of one building and began a protest. Soon there were more than 100 inmates involved and someone lit a fire in the compound.
NSW Police attended but had to remain outside the centre because of jurisdictional issues that had not been resolved, despite many meetings between key stakeholders to try to reach agreement on a memorandum of understanding on jurisdiction which had passed through more hands than a well-worn $5 note.
Meanwhile frantic phone calls from the detention centre to the Australian Federal Police in Sydney (who had the jurisdictional responsibility) revealed that only 22 were trained and available to handle such incidents. However they were not actually available right then.
So calls were made to Canberra where a force of appropriately trained and equipped officers was dispatched. By car and bus. It took several hours for them to arrive, like the troops in an old western who leave the fort by horse to rescue their comrades from an Indian attack.
Unfortunately, when they arrived they discovered that the roof height was greater than 2m and the Australian and New Zealand standards that the AFP operates under state any height greater than 2m requires “approved restraints” which, of course, they did not have.
So they decided to negotiate rather than remove the offenders from the roof and restore order. Meanwhile the NSW Police, complete with a riot squad, watched the farce unfold and were powerless to act.
The rioters left the roof at will to go to the toilet, recharge their mobile phones, talk to the media and have meals but no one considered arresting them as they came down for their break.
Instead, a senior Immigration official stuck his head through the roof and spoke to the rioters. Strangely those discussions fell on deaf ears and the rioters stayed on the roof for a few more days.
According to evidence given by Assistant Commissioner Frank Minnelli, the NSW Police, who are seemingly not afraid of heights, could have got the rioters down.
And the lessons learnt from this incident?
Nearly two years after this farce, Immigration has managed to sign an MOU with the NT and Tasmanian police. The others – including NSW – have yet to sign.
Detainees know our response to illegal behaviour is a joke.
Meanwhile the AFP should advertise for unemployed trapeze artists to help in future incidents.Source: The Australian – “The joke’s on us in immigration’s Fawlty Towers”
- Villawood protester ‘threatened suicide’ (bigpondnews.com)
- Illegal immigrants found working at Villawood (abc.net.au)
- Villawood guard suspended over excessive force allegations (abc.net.au)
- Australian navy intercepts Indonesian people-smuggling ship (craighill.net)