Sandi Logan is on a mission to shape what you read, see and hear about the federal government’s most troublesome policy area: immigration.
Logan helps determine which journalists get access to the Immigration Department’s facilities and which don’t. He rarely lets a damaging story, blog or tweet about his department go unchallenged. And when a big news story breaks — such as a detention centre riot — it’s often this bald, bespectacled bureaucrat who ends up on the news, rather than Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
Chances are you recognise him: no other public servant has such a high profile, or speaks in such a distinctive Canadian twang. For Logan, spruiking for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship isn’t just a job: it’s a calling.
“My phone has not gone to sleep for about seven years — just ask my wife,” he tells The Power Index. “If large organisations are going to be taken seriously you’ve got to be readily available. That means 24/7.”
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It wasn’t always so. In the Philip Ruddock/Amanda Vanstone era, the department’s media unit was a shambles — notorious, in Logan’s own words, for its “assumption culture”, “series of stuff-ups”, ” fragmented computer system”, “poor record-keeping” and for having “no relationship with journalists”.
This changed when the ex-AFP spinner arrived in 2005. Logan quickly implemented proper systems for responding to media inquiries, lobbied for increased resources (staff numbers soared from 15 to 41 within a year), embraced social media technologies, and made himself ultra-accessible.
Since then his job has become more complex. In June 2009 Australia had five detention centres housing around 1000 detainees; less than two years later this had ballooned to 23 sites and 6500 people. As the number of detainees grows, so too does the media’s interest in the issue.
This means Logan must, at times, go above and beyond his duties. He worked for 20 hours straight when riots broke out on Christmas Island last March. At 2am he even took command of the facility for four hours so the centre’s managers could rest.
But here we arrive at the Logan paradox. Despite his enthusiasm and despite his availability, he’s a deeply polarising figure among the journalists who deal with him. Leigh Sales is a fan, describing him as “one of the savviest professionals around”. But many reporters outright detest him, especially when he complains to their editor about their stories or slams their work on Twitter.
One experienced reporter, who has copped criticism from Logan, describes him as “obstructive”, “forceful” and “aggressive”. Another calls him a “stirrer” and a “psycho”.
“He has become a player and a commentator, not just a public servant,” says the latter informant. “He oversteps the mark. He doesn’t mind throwing bombs. I think he winds up journos to put them off their game.”
And it’s not just the media Logan takes on. Last June, Marissa Ran, a visiting law student from the US, posted a blog on a University of Berkeley website describing her experience volunteering at the Villawood Detention Centre. The first comment appeared two days later: a 483-word response by Sandi Logan.
“That the department monitors the internet to that extent and responds to the material is extraordinary,” says Stephen Blanks, an asylum seeker advocate and secretary for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. “He’s certainly dedicated to the cause. There’s no chink of doubt in what he does to defend the indefensible.”
It’s dubious, however, whether Logan’s interventions are effective. One journalist told The Power Index his approach had driven them to dig deeper into the issue of mandatory detention. Another said they avoid him altogether — “he’s useless” — and only deal with Bowen’s office.
Logan shrugs off the criticism, saying he has no plans to tone down his dealings with journalists and advocates.
“When things are misreported — or, even worse, when they’re misreported as part of an agenda — I do get cross and I get in touch with the journo. It’s not a threat but a courtesy,” he says.