Ask almost any journalist and they’ll tell you that under Philip Ruddock, the immigration department was a media black hole. From 1996 to 2003, if you called the department for a comment you had Buckley’s of hearing back. Under Ruddock, DIMIA was notoriously unaccountable and unavailable.

Nothing much changed once Amanda Vanstone took over. That’s until Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon hit the headlines. As the immigration scab was picked to reveal mass departmental ineptitude, DIMIA went into damage control. New department head Andrew Metcalfe was brought in to bandaid what looked like an irreparable culture of mismanagement.

The media sensed that something was up when new chief spinner Sandi Logan started by sending a letter of congratulation to Lateline after their Cornelia Rau story landed them a Walkley.

Sure, Crikey and others scoffed at the letter. We also teased DIMA for their slogan “People Are Our Business” slapped across mugs and mouse pads. And when they changed their name to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, we may have indulged in one too many DIC jokes — at least until the DIAC acronym was revealed.

But it’s hard to argue with the fact that in eighteen months, Metcalfe has turned the department’s relationship with the media on its head — DIAC has become more transparent.

In September last year, Stephen Mayne wrote this in Crikey:

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 “break down 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 and Logan says his enlarged $3.8 million budget is now almost enough.

Proper systems were implemented to deal with media enquiries and the department undertook to be available 24 hours a day to get a response to journalists within one hour.

But is DIAC’s romance with the media over? Last week Crikey emailed the Immigration Department’s communications branch with a query for a story. We received this response:

The Minister’s Office has directed all media enquiries to the department be referred to his press secretary. Her name is Kate Walshe. Her phone number is … 

As the Industrial Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews’ office was infamous for never returning media calls, but we did manage to speak to Kate Walshe about the new media policy under Andrews.

“The idea is that it will all come to me on the basis that the minister sets the policy and the direction of things…” Walshe confirmed to Crikey.

Walshe maintained that the DIAC communications branch was still very closely involved. “But I’d like to think that the media will find that they have a good working relationship with me,” said Walshe.

As for an answer to our query from last week, Walshe has yet to get back to us with a response.  

Admittedly, she’s been snowed under in the last few days. Walshe has been  mopping up Kevin Andrews’ mess after he got his facts wrong on ABC’s PM program over the Sri Lankan refugees:

MARK COLVIN: But why did you say that they were an agency of the UNHCR?

KEVIN ANDREWS: I’m happy to admit I made a mistake in those words. What I was trying to convey is that they would be processed according to United Nations protocols, and this will be done by an organisation which is effectively a well-respected international NGO.

MARK COLVIN: So you say that you made a mistake, because the Crikey website quotes your spokeswoman as saying that the interview was cut to change your meaning.

KEVIN ANDREWS: Oh, I don’t know what’s on the website. I’m answering your question now, Mark.

MARK COLVIN: So it was a mistake?

KEVIN ANDREWS: Yes…

Liberal party hard man Ian Hanke remains on Andrews’ staff. Is he pulling the strings here? Are we once again witnessing the politicisation of the immigration department?

And what sort of value are taxpayers getting for that almost $4 million PR budget?

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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