The Secretary of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, has found himself under quite extraordinary attack in the last 24 hours following reports he linked asylum seeker processing to Paris or London-like social problems.

What that means exactly isn’t clear. “Social problems” was the wording in the initial ABC report that sparked the story, in a piece written by Jeremy Thompson. Stefanie Balogh of The Australian referred to “a risk to Australia’s social cohesion”. Michelle Grattan subsequently used the term “European-style unrest in [Australian] cities”, a somewhat different idea, although Grattan today referred to media “overegging”.

It was also claimed that Metcalfe has predicted 600 arrivals a month.

The alleged remarks promptly exploded within the echo chamber of the Left. Asylum seeker advocates lined up to attack the comments, and Metcalfe. The UNHCR weighed in. Bob Brown took the remarkable and unjustified step of labelling Metcalfe a “turkey” who should be sacked. The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils was reported as calling the remarks ”inflammatory” and ”devastating”.

Problem was, Metcalfe never said what he is reported to have said. But what he did say wasn’t totally divorced from the reports. His comments might have been grossly simplified, almost to the point of distortion, but he wasn’t misquoted or outright misrepresented.

On Wednesday morning, a background briefing was held for Gallery journalists in Canberra by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s office, involving Metcalfe and other officials. Crikey received an invitation but was unable to attend, so this account of what specifically happened at the briefing is based on several sources, including from people who were present. Crikey understands the prime minister’s office proposed the idea of the briefing, with the intention of ensuring that the media would have a good idea of the issues on which Tony Abbott was to be briefed later that day. About a dozen journalists attended.

Whatever the motivation for the briefing, they have been held before by this government in other portfolios and can be a useful way for journalists and policymakers to have an in-depth discussion of policy issues without the problem of needing to stick closely to a public script. But they rely on both sides treating each other as adults. The conditions for Wednesday’s briefing were that nothing was to be published before Abbott was briefed that afternoon in Brisbane by Metcalfe, and that any reporting be on a strict non-attribution basis — that is, there was to be no identification of who had said what.

The “social problems” issue appears to have arisen — according to two sources — from Metcalfe’s tour d’horizon of asylum seeker processing within the broader context of Australia’s immigration history. He explained that Australia had a successful immigration program because Australians understood it was controlled — the immigration program was targeted for skills and quality applicants, asylum seeker processing and provision of humanitarian visas was on terms set by the government, not by anyone else. Metcalfe is understood to have raised the specific concern of some asylum seekers who are found not to have legitimate claims to an humanitarian visa, but whose source countries will not accept them back.

These people in effect have to remain here, having “self-selected” to come to Australia despite their official rejection by us. Metcalfe argued that a rise in the number of such unsuccessful-but-unreturnable applicants creates tensions within the relevant community within Australia, due to the perception that they are taking the places of genuine asylum seekers and their families.

This issue appears to have prompted some subsequent press coverage about “queue jumpers”, with Tony Jones asking John Howard on Lateline on Wednesday night about “Labor government ministers [sic] referring effectively to asylum seekers as queue-jumpers”. But that wasn’t the issue that got traction.

Metcalfe’s other point, Crikey understands, was that a failure to preserve the perception of control in relation to asylum seekers has the potential to undermine community perceptions of and support for the entire immigration program, and in doing so noted that at the height of 2010, up to 600 asylum seekers were arriving by boat a month. If that is what Metcalfe said, it was an unexceptionable observation — the 2010 election campaign, with Labor and the Coalition competing to reject a “big Australia”, was a perfect demonstration of how community misperceptions that control of our borders had been lost undermined support for a strong immigration program. And his numbers are entirely accurate.

What’s agreed by several sources is that Metcalfe was then asked if the social impacts to which he was referring would be like those in Europe, to which he assented. This appears to be the one mistake Metcalfe made, in making otherwise straightforward observations, although how carefully he nuanced his assent to the journalist’s question isn’t clear. There was thus no outright misrepresentation of his remarks, but no report provided any context for them that would have aided an understanding of his actual point, which had nothing to do with Europe-style riots.

And Crikey understands that Metcalfe’s reference to 600 arrivals a month was merely historical, and not a prediction. But that distinction has been entirely lost in the ensuing coverage, which has Metcalfe predicting that that will be the number of maritime arrivals if we don’t establish a deterrence to boat trips.

The impression, thus, is of Metcalfe adopting an Enoch Powell-style pose of predicting riots and unrest if we didn’t stop the 600 asylum seekers a month who would come in, when he said nothing of the sort.

There’s considerable annoyance within the government toward the ABC, with complaints that Thompson had written the originating piece without having attended the briefing (the ABC’s Sabra Lane attended, and Crikey understands her detailed notes were used), that the ABC ran coverage of the briefing before Abbott’s briefing with Metcalfe began and that comments were attributed to Metcalfe, breaching the conditions of the briefing.

In fact, Thompson’s piece does not attribute anything to Metcalfe, and merely states that he led the briefing of Tony Abbott; Sabra Lane’s own report for The World Today at lunchtime didn’t attribute anything to Metcalfe either, but did refer to the London and Paris-style social problems (and some other coverage, like the Telegraph’s, also omits Metcalfe altogether from the story). You have to reach your own conclusion about who made the remarks, although it’s not exactly a huge leap of logic to point the finger at Metcalfe and that’s what inevitably happened. However, it’s hard to see that the ABC’s initial reports broke the strict terms of the non-attribution requirement, regardless of what happened later.

There does seem to be a clearer case that the ABC broke the embargo for the briefing; that is said to have been in response to a News Ltd journalist also breaking the embargo, although in what circumstances is unclear — one source suggests it was in contacting Abbott’s office about the content of the briefing, rather than running a story.

In short, there appears to have been a round of minor mistakes or breaches by several parties that have generated a non-fact about Metcalfe that promptly caught fire in the already overheated atmosphere of the asylum seeker debate. Whatever nuanced — and I’d suggest fairly unarguable — point that was he was making about Australians’ attitudes toward border security have been long since lost.

What’s certain is that the government will be far more loathe to offer these kinds of background briefings in the future. Which will, with a certain inevitable circularity, means more complaints from the media about spin and the refusal of the government to offer anything but bland talking points. And so it goes.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW