Crushing lives, with compassion

Australia’s immigration policy never seems to be out of the headlines, but until now we haven’t heard much from the people charged with implementing it. That’s about to change with the publication of Compassionate Bastard, a colourful insider’s account written by an ex-manager of the Villawood Detention Centre.

The author, Peter Mitchell, is the son of former UNE historian Dr Bruce Mitchell and former PLC deputy head, Jean Mitchell. He moved to Sydney after finishing school at Duval High, married his childhood sweetheart, and devoted his twenties to being a singer-songwriter for several bands playing the inner-city pub circuit.

When he joined the public service in February 1990, aged 30, he was looking for a mundane job that wouldn’t interfere too much with his poetry and song writing. Offered a choice between taxation, defence and immigration, he says he opted for the latter because ‘tax sounded like it had far too much maths, defence sounded a little bit brutal, and in immigration at least you’d be dealing with people.’

Waiting for his induction interview, he picked up some brochures describing the functions of the department he was about to join. “It seems naïve now, but it was not until then I realised that Australia regulated who could enter its borders, and who could stay. In some way I must have assumed someone was controlling the borders, but I had no idea that it might soon be me,” he writes in his memoir.

A big man, Peter found himself steered into the role of compliance officer because of his ability to ‘fill a door nicely’. Assigned to a small team and equipped with a walkie talkie and a set of handcuffs, he was soon hooked on the adrenalin rush of chasing down unlawful non-citizens – people who had overstayed their visas or entered the country illegally.

The title of the memoir reflects how he came to terms with working at what he calls ‘the coalface of the human misery industry’. On advice from his team-mate, Kurt – ‘If you treat everyone with respect, and do the job as humanely as you can, then you’ll be better able to cope with being a bastard and crushing their lives’ – he resolved to act as compassionately as possible, within the bounds of the legislation. Or, as he puts it: “In short, to be a compassionate life-crushing bastard.”

Unfortunately, as a reader I found the pile-up of farcical situations in the first section of the book left me feeling that very little sympathy, let alone compassion, was on display. The anecdotes about capturing ‘duds’ – counterfeit citizens – are all played for laughs, featuring farts in the night, toes peeping through insulation material, and people with giveaway accents improbably claiming to have a speech impediment. They’re the kind of blokey stories that you can imagine compliance officers swapping among themselves, possibly because focusing on the funny side helps create a self-preserving psychological distance from the work they have to do.

During his thirteen years with the Department, Peter climbed the public service ladder up to the executive service level, becoming the manager of the infamous Villawood Detention Centre in 1996, and dealing with hunger strikes, self-harm protests, mass escapes, and the occasional glacial stare from Immigration minister Philip Ruddock. He also managed ‘Operation Safe Haven’ at East Hills, an initiative that ministered to the desperate flood of refugees from Kosovo and East Timor in 1999.

Peter’s account of a concert held at the East Hills camp provides a warm and touching moment of epiphany in the memoir. His other life as a musician emerged when he wrote and performed an original song about the Kosovars who’d fled Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing program in Yugoslavia. The audience of more than 500 refugees and colleagues greeted it with rapturous applause, demanded an encore, and joined in the chorus:

“It was a wonderful experience and one that nearly overwhelmed me. How had my professional journey brought me to such a joyous moment? Those nights seeking overstayers, the years of brutal pragmatism, the politics of Villawood – nothing had prepared me for such warm human involvement. It was a moment of elation, and of epiphany. I felt stirrings of deep emotions that I’d been repressing since the days when I wrote and played my music regularly. It all rushed to the surface as I stood singing and crying for the Kosovars and for the person I’d once been.”

After leaving the Department of Immigration in 2003, Peter lived in Tamworth and then Newcastle with his wife Penny and their five cats. He wrote his memoir as part of a PhD in creative writing, which he began at the University of New England and completed at CQUniversity under the supervision of Professor Donna Lee Brien.

Compassionate Bastard, an unusual blend of non-partisan administrative memoir and boy’s own adventure, with a bit of soul-searching thrown in, will be available in bookshops from August 29.

Dr Peter Mitchell with his PhD supervisor, Professor Donna Lee Brien, at a 2008 writing masterclass on Pumpkin Island, Qld


The following excerpt from Compassionate Bastard describes a visit to Villawood Detention Centre by the Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, after two mass escapes had occurred within a few weeks of each other. One involved secret earthworks hidden by prayer mats in a room unwisely designated as a ‘Mosque’ and the second, most embarassingly, was from the highest security area of the centre:

The minister arrived with a retinue of the high and mighty from state headquarters and Canberra. At one point during the tour of the two escape sites, the minister and I entered the impressive system of steel gates and secure sally-ports that allowed two-at-a-time entry into Stage Three. As we were waiting to be let in, an awkward silence descended. The minister had hardly spoken throughout the tour, presumably to control the rage he felt at the escapes, but his fury was absolutely palpable. I was too intimidated to attempt conversational small talk but, as there was a mortifying delay in finding an ACM officer with a key, the minister felt disposed to ask me a question.
‘So, would you say that Stage Three is our most secure facility?’
A seemingly harmless question, you might think, but to anyone who knew the minister – and especially to someone in my position – it was loaded with venom. Realising my peril, with nervous sweat soaking into the pyjamas I was wearing beneath my jacket (having rushed to Villawood following the call that had shattered my sleep at two-thirty that morning), I attempted to defuse the tension with a joke.
‘Well, Minister, after last night when a huge hole was cut through it, I’d say that Stage Three was now our 
least secure facility.’
This didn’t go over well. He turned his glacial countenance to me and glowered. I felt myself shrink as he emanated career-ending death rays towards me.

Published in Seasons magazine, The Armidale Express, Spring 2011

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