Friday, October 07, 2005


Today both the current and the former Australian Federal Ministers for Immigration denied responsibility for the case of Vivian Alvarez Solon, wrongly deported and not yet repatriated; nor do they take responsibility for the official report's description of the case as 'catastrophic'. (Neil Comrie, you rock. I remember this bloke from his early days as Victorian Police Commissioner, and he was nobody's fool and nobody's patsy then either.) Amanda Vanstone and Phillip Ruddock both blame the toxic culture of the Immigration Department for the attitudes that produced the Solon sequence of events.

While many don't accept this as any sort of responsible adult reaction, I've noticed that nobody has questioned the notion of a toxic culture as such. It might even be said that Vanstone took her cue from Mark Latham's analysis of the Labor Party -- and nobody seems to be arguing about that, either.

Where a toxic culture prevails, where does the buck stop? And -- since such cultures are self-perpetuating after the manner of compound interest -- where does one start to stop the rot? I've been enmeshed in three such: the hothouse, cut-throat mini-world of the postgraduate students in a university department in which I used to teach; a department of the Commonwealth Public Service, where trivial rules ruled and no genuinely productive work was ever done, in which I used to 'work'; and the scary South Australian cowboy culture that prevails on the roads here, to which all shattered interstate and overseas visitors who have ever tried to drive in it will attest. In all three cases, some of the victims have been physically or psychologically scarred for life.

The worst of these malignant growths is that they are so stealthy, and by the time anyone notices them they are too deeply entrenched in the belief systems of those who live inside them for change to be anything but excruciatingly slow and profoundly resented. And nobody can say what turned these cultures poisonous, or when, or why. Maybe it's time for a bit of public discussion about the reasons why workplace or other public cultures go bad.

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