The 7.30 Report had a touching story last night on the plight of ten Sierra Leone athletes who came to Australia for the Commonwealth Games, defected and are now progressively being granted permanent residency by our compassionate immigration system. It’s not online yet but this earlier story from March sets the scene.

Chief DIMA spin doctor Sandi Logan featured in last night’s story in just the latest example of his turnaround in public affairs at Australia’s most maligned government department.

Logan presented a paper at the recent MEAA public affairs convention in Sydney which provided an illuminating insight into the cultural revolution he has driven through the place since taking over as national communications manager last year. He didn’t mince words about the mess that he inherited when he talked about a “breakdown in management controls”, “the assumption culture”, “a series of stuff-ups”, “a fragmented computer system”, “poor record keeping” and “no relationship with journalists”.

Getting more resources was the first important step and the 15-strong DIMA public affairs office was quickly expanded to 41. Logan says his enlarged $3.8 million budget is now almost enough.

Proper systems were implemented to deal with media inquiries and the department undertook to be available 24 hours a day to get a response to journalists within one hour. There’s no shortage of issues: Logan says his people have had to deal with 786 different talking points so far in 2006.

The master spinner even talked openly about the virtues of working with Channel Seven’s Border Security which attracts more than two million viewers a week. He said the program provided “another good news opportunity for the department”, “has done a lot to help our reputation” and “saves us on recruitment costs”.

Whilst Amanda Vanstone and John Howard are not even trying to use immigration as a good news story, the department is on the front foot right across the country. It now has spin doctors in every capital city and consciously pitches citizenship and work visa stories to the regional and local media Logan said “are screaming for stories”.

I asked Sandi if he regretted sending a letter congratulating Lateline for its Walkley after exposing DIMA’s appalling deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez. Wasn’t this a bit naff? To the contrary; Logan said DIMA now has a “very good” relationship with Lateline, he’s known presenter Tony Jones and executive producer Peter Charley for decades and the strategy was to draw “a clear marker in the sand that DIMA was a new organisation”.

Indeed it is, but a spin offensive by public servants doesn’t change the ideology of the Howard Government, which continues to exploit the national security wedge at every opportunity.