TEXT review

Memoir and moral dilemma

review by Ian Macphee


Peter Mitchell
Compassionate Bastard
Penguin Group, Melbourne 2011
ISBN 9780143566229
Pb 300pp AUD24.95

From prologue to epilogue, Compassionate Bastard is gripping. Peter Mitchell’s arresting, flowing style has humour (mostly gentle but sometimes ironic) and an underlying compassion for the human suffering with which he was confronted in the Immigration Department as a member of the Compliance Unit and as manager of the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.

Mitchell wrote Compassionate Bastard as part of a PhD at the Central Queensland University. The subtitle is ‘How an ordinary bloke came to manage Villawood Detention Centre and still live with himself’.

Most readers would empathise with Mitchell’s handling of the moral dilemmas facing him in the Compliance Unit and at Villawood. After reading the brief prologue I could not put the book down. We learn about the emotional pressure upon staff at Villawood, and of the grotesque burden borne by its manager; a burden few in Canberra could even contemplate. It illustrates the excruciating challenges faced by many humane immigration officials and the plight of those fleeing persecution. Mitchell reveals all ethical dilemmas with engaging eloquence. He confides: ‘learning to deal with our most basic emotions was part of the career we’d chosen, whether we liked it or not’ (129). ‘It was a daunting realisation’ to discover that his job ‘was inherently extreme – not only physical, but also psychologically and emotionally scarifying’ (129). This was part of his ‘expanded appreciation of the desperation and human vulnerability that, at times, affects us all – especially in the unpredictable collision between personal motivations and the impersonal machinations of government’ (129).

Readers will likely feel confronted by the burden imposed upon immigration staff and asylum seekers who have fallen victim to the bipartisan failure of government after government since 1996. Most states would welcome asylum seekers for processing and ultimate settlement if assessed as refugees. No state government has proposed this alternative to the federal governments that built the detention centres. Mitchell’s brief history of Villawood and its transformation in the Howard years is compelling reading for any Australian with a sense of ‘a fair go’.

Compassionate Bastard should enable readers to better understand the issue of asylum seekers. It complements two other excellent books by Australian journalists: The Boat People (1979), a collection of articles for The Age enlarged by respected foreign correspondent and diplomat Bruce Grant, and Dark Victory (2003) by distinguished journalists, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. The latter reveals shameful acts by the Howard Government from Tampa onwards and the capitulation of Labor from the principles it had shared with the Fraser Government regarding those seeking asylum in Australia after perilous boat voyages. Mitchell’s book concludes with his views of policy that followed Tampa.
The Boat People and Dark Victory document the suffering of those fleeing persecution in other countries and the perils they faced in coming to Australia. In Compassionate Bastard Mitchell reveals the third phase of trauma: mandatory detention in Australia. Compassionate Bastard is a memoir, yet it is the detainees who are at the centre of Mitchell’s attention.

Readers may form their own judgments as Mitchell reveals his administrative dilemmas. Mitchell leaves the reader in no doubt about his contempt for the privatisation of detention centres. ‘Dignified detainee security’ was not compatible with making a profit (166). Dedicated public servants were ‘given nominal responsibility for administering an almost impossible contract’ (168). They no longer had control; merely influence. Yet, as Mitchell states, the minister had a clear duty of care to the people his department had detained (168). Prior to privatisation, Mitchell and others sought dignified approaches to detainee security and liaised with refugee support groups. Privatisation ended that. Detainees did not receive assistance even when in acute mental condition.  

Few voters could imagine the suffering of asylum seekers or detention centre staff unless they read this book. Mass escapes, hunger strikes and self-mutilation gained some publicity at the time, but anyone who cares about Australia’s humane values should read the chapters that Mitchell dedicates to these issues. In the final chapter and epilogue, Mitchell states his views on refugee policy clearly without being dogmatic. To my mind there is an opportunity for rational debate to flow from Compassionate Bastard, in contrast with the constant exchange of political insults that deepen the ignorance of voters regarding the suffering of asylum seekers in this land.

Compassionate Bastard also provides commentary on Operation Safe Haven, which Mitchell managed in 1999. The scandal of Howard’s policy of flying Kosovars to Australia for temporary residence when they could have been settled in neighbouring countries until stability had returned in Kosovo is revealed starkly. It was to give Howard a humane image before they were sent home as soon as the UN declared Kosovo safe. Mitchell was ordered to insist that all return. He did so. But then the government made ‘a backflip’ (264). Some who refused to go were allowed to stay. Mitchell felt guilty about those who had not wanted to leave but who trusted his order: ‘I felt that my word and good faith had been undercut by the pragmatism of the hour’ (264).
Mitchell’s account of the integration of asylum seekers from East Timor and Kosovo at Sydney’s East Hills Centre illustrates how successful refugees have been in settling in Australia. In those cases most were able to return to their homelands when peace returned. Although Mitchell records the experience at that camp as ‘a wonderful celebration of life and humanity’ (267), he concludes that his role had been ‘a depriver of people’s liberty, no matter how compassionately done’ (271). He ‘was increasingly conflicted by the velvet gloved, iron-handed bureaucracy’ (272). Government orders became increasingly harsh and Mitchell was expected to enforce orders that could only compound the suffering of desperate people. Mitchell found it difficult but discharged his orders as humanely as possible.  Mitchell writes openly of the stress suffered by some humane officials and of the courageous decency of those who ignored the heartless orders of their superiors – including the Minister of Immigration and the Prime Minister.

Refugee settlement studies show that desperate people have blended into our community when assisted. Vietnamese refugees are an outstanding example. I believe Australia must return to those humane and practical policies: ‘policies that processed refugees under UNHCR supervision offshore or onshore in community accommodation that enabled asylum seekers to gain skills, jobs and health examinations, thereby not compounding their trauma as much as brutal barbed-wire detention does’ [1].

In the early days of Villawood and other detention centres, asylum seekers were held for short periods, given an assessment and, if granted temporary or permanent residence, received English language education, working skills, health examinations and interpreting services. This settlement was co-ordinated by federal, state, and local government, without the intrusion of petty politics. But, Mitchell reveals, the protracted process of mandatory detention in the Howard years made ultimate settlement even more difficult for the refugees. The percentage of those seeking asylum here comprised only 1.04% of the global total in 2010. As for the cost to taxpayers, detention costs in the same period exceeded $800 million. And, as Mitchell writes: ‘happy endings are few and far between in the human misery industry that was the daily work of the Immigration Department’ (109).



[1] Studies associated with the Department of Immigration and the Refugee Council of Australia and the Edmond Rice Centre. return to text

Works cited

Grant, B 1979 The Boat People, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic return to text
Marr, D & M Wilkinson 2003 Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW
return to text


Ian Macphee was Minister for Immigration & Ethnic Affairs, 1979-82.


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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo