Roman Quaedvlieg
Roman Quaedvlieg. Image credit: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Each generation of politicians, it seems, must re-learn the same lessons. The Howard government learnt, after its humiliation of then-defence secretary Paul Barratt, that it’s best to look after senior public servants who are guilty of “not getting on” with ministers.

Barratt, one of the more distinguished people to hold the secretaryship of a major portfolio, was lured from the private sector back to public service by John Howard in 1996, only for John Moore, the now rightly forgotten Queensland MP who was defence minister at the time, to decide he didn’t like him, opening up a bitter and very public legal stoush in 1999. 

In 2002, Barratt’s successor, Allan Hawke, didn’t have his contract renewed in the wake of the children overboard affair — which Hawke had tried to accept some responsibility for despite the lies emanating from politicians, not public servants — and ongoing procurement issues. This time, the ousted secretary was looked after, with the cushiest of diplomatic postings, Wellington, where the only problems Hawke encountered were from Kiwi farmers who wanted to export their infected apples here. No public stoushes. No bitter former secretary. Just a few fireblighted apples chucked at the High Commission.

Peter Dutton and the rest of the geniuses in the Turnbull government had forgotten all that when they not merely subjected Australian Border Force (ABF) head Roman Quaedvlieg to a 10-month inquiry into allegations around the appointment of his partner to a position within the ABF, but then sacked him with a statement about his misbehaviour and lying. That was after responsibility for dumping him was handballed around the government like a game of pass the parcel.

Since then, Quaedvlieg, showing a grasp of social media unusual for a former public servant, has emerged as not exactly a government critic, but a figure with well-informed views across a range of issues, views not always consistent with the line that he would have been required to maintain, and did maintain, in his former role. He published an account of his visit to Nauru in which he discussed homophobic violence toward refugees and “disarming signs of the drudgery of an incarcerated population”; and called for a judicial inquiry into all asylum seeker deaths.

And then, of course, there are his views on the use of Peter Dutton’s discretionary powers as minister, which breathed new life into the issue last week and drew claims of “fabrication” and suggestions of poor mental health from the minister. The extent to which Dutton’s office has ever sought help for people known to the minister — something he has vociferously denied in parliament — will doubtless form part of question time across the week. Either way, it will disrupt Scott Morrison’s effort to send a clear message — although what that message is, isn’t clear, since the only positive thing the new Prime Minister has committed to is religious freedom laws. Doubtless workers facing stagnant wages across the country will be delighted at the government’s priorities.

But at least the Quaedvlieg angle on the au pair issue could have been avoided with some more adept handling of the then-ABF head — and certainly not subjecting him to nearly a year of humiliation before sacking him.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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