What’s our most important and sensitive diplomatic posting? Jakarta. And who are we putting there? Someone who looks like a prime candidate for De Anne’s doddering daiquiri diplomats list.

Have a look at how the PM led into the announcement in his chat with Laurie yesterday:

[Immigration] has clearly made mistakes and I’ll be having more to say about that when we comment on the Palmer Report. But the Immigration Department does have a difficult job to do.

Nonetheless, we do need to make changes, and the current Secretary of the Department of Immigration indicated to the government a little while ago that he felt that a new person at the head of that Department was needed to drive that change.

Now, if you want a smooth run you don’t front Laurie without an announcement ,and the PM came bearing journalistic gold, frankincense and myrrh. So this was the vigorous exchange that followed Howard’s announcement:

LAURIE OAKES: You realise, I guess, that some people will see this as Mr Farmer falling on his sword, and two ministers – Mr Ruddock and Senator Vanstone – getting off unscathed.

JOHN HOWARD: Well ultimately governments are accountable at the ballot box, but it’s not reasonable – and I take your point but I don’t agree with it, but I understand the point you’re making…

The PM finished off his statement, and Laurie left it. Like being savaged by a dead sheep, as the British Labour heavy Dennis Healy used to say.

And much of the reaction has been like Michelle Grattan’s: “Finally, someone had to take the fall, and Bill Farmer has done so. A grateful government has made sure he is looked after with one of the most important jobs in Australian diplomacy, the Jakarta post. Former and present ministers Ruddock and Vanstone have slid out of blame, at least in the eye of their boss.” Shadow immigration minister Tony Burke remarked that it’s “inappropriate that someone who should have been sacked is instead rewarded.”

But what about the implications of that reward? Farmer has failed as a senior public servant. He may have been given an impossible brief by his ministers – but the job of departmental heads is to find some acceptable way of ameliorating and implementing these. Instead, Farmer gave us Vivienne Alvarez and Cornelia Rau.

He’s kept on failing. Look at The Age today: “Liberal backbencher Petro Georgiou questioned why, as of last night, Australia’s longest serving detainee Peter Qasim was still not released – despite papers for his visa going to him on 20 June.”

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is about more than Schapelle Corby. It’s about more than people smuggling or terrorism. We don’t hear much about West Papua, and the violence in that reluctant, resource-rich province of Indonesia that could end up as a regional flashpoint. And West Papua is the perfect example of the fundamental forces that are tugging the entire archipelago in different directions and creating violence in their wake.

Farmer has been unable to manage a department and implement the wishes of his ministers here in Australia. How will he deal with chaos, sensitivities and security – our security?

Peter Fray

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