Dutton, the au pair affair and the question of abuse of power

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Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (Screenshot via @7NewsSydney)

Kim Wingerei questions why it's necessary for ministerial positions to have such overarching powers of discretion they can overrule established protocols. 

FROM WAVING AU PAIRS through the immigration queue, throwing money at unsuspecting charities and denying medical treatments for children, to ignoring climate change and the bullying culture that is endemic to Liberal Party politics, the Government has shown power but not strength.

It happens all the time, mates calling mates asking for favours. But when AFL CEO Gillian McLachlan emailed Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on a Sunday to overturn a decision made by immigration officers, he was seeking to use his influence where it didn't belong. And Dutton used his powers when he should have known better.

To paraphrase former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, to test a man's character, give him power. Both McLachlan and Dutton failed that test.

In the case of Dutton, apparently more than once. And as always when these stories come to light, the initial denial of wrongdoing illuminates and reveals.

The relevant documentation for Dutton's "ministerial discretion" states:

'In the circumstances, I have decided that as a discretionary and humanitarian act to an individual with ongoing needs, it is in the interests of Australia as a humane and generous society to grant this person a Tourist visa.'

His claim of acting on "humanitarian grounds" beggars belief, coming from a man responsible for managing the horrors of the offshore refugee camps.

But Dutton will survive and McLachlan will be consumed by the footy finals by the weekend.

Dutton will survive because he has acted within the law, despite displaying such poor judgement. Coming straight after the leadership "coup", rest assured that Prime Minister Scott Morrison won't be getting involved and every effort will be made to make it all go away.

And it probably will.

Just like the latest leadership kerfuffle has conveniently silenced "ReefGate" — the awarding of an unsolicited $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Both these cases show how Government ministers have far too much power to make decisions and spend money without the appropriate checks and balances in place.

Although there may be cases where a minister is required to have executive powers to override the actions of immigration officers, acting according to the law, it is impossible to see how that would apply in allowing an au pair (or three) from France or Italy – who broke visa regulations – into the country. There is no intimation that the immigration officers had not followed the rules — quite the contrary. And even if there was, the appropriate action would be a court appeal.

Indeed, it is hard to see why an immigration minister, or any minister, should have such powers at all.

As for the awarding of monies to a small conservation charity, it was also within former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's (remember him?) remit to do so. But why did he have that power? Turnbull claims it was all done "transparently", but so far no explanation has been given as to what that transparency actually entailed. We can only hope that the Labor Party and others continue to pursue this when Parliament returns in a couple of weeks — but without Turnbull to answer questions, that might just fizz out, too. How convenient.

What we do know is that the board of this Great Barrier Reef Foundation reads like a who's who of Australian business, chaired by Dr John Schubert AO, who has been on the board of such notable protectors of the environment as Esso and BHP. It also includes Stephen Fitzgerald, who worked with Turnbull at Goldman Sachs and Grant King, a doyen of Australian energy companies. Both these men are exceptionally well connected and influential people, who know how to send an email to call in a favour or two.

It's unlikely that emails played much of a part in the bullying of Liberal MP Julia Banks, who decided not to stand for election again, saying she had enough of the toxic culture within her party.

Scott Morrison says all the right things, of course, adding it to the list of things he "has no truck with". And down south Liberal "power broker", Michael Kroger – a man who is to civil discourse what Henry Kissinger is to "peace" talks – declares that it is all just part of the "cut and thrust" of the game of politics. This is a sentiment echoed by many of the men offering comment on the matter.

Politics should be a means to an end — but to those on the inside, it's just a game.

Or to quote Hunter S Thompson:

The [politics] business is a cruel and shallow money trench,

a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free,

and good men die like dogs.

There’s also a negative side.

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer and commentator. You can follow him @kwingerei.

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