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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 24


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:00 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Vanstone, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, in her capacity as minister for immigration. Can the minister explain why she has not responded to the community calls, including from the Rau family, for a full, open and transparent judicial inquiry into the case of Ms Rau’s 10-month detention by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs? Can the minister confirm that her chosen method of inquiry by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mr Mick Palmer will not have legal powers to compel the attendance of witnesses, will not be able to compel answers to questions, will not be able to administer an oath to witnesses, will not be able to compel production of documents or of items such as videotape footage, will not be able to protect witnesses or testimony, and that his report will not be protected from legal action such as defamation? Does the minister agree that the absence of these features may limit the capacity of Mr Palmer’s inquiry to have all the facts of the case fully considered and could undermine public confidence in the process?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I thank the senator for his question. It is correct that the government and I have decided that it is appropriate to have an inquiry into this matter to ascertain whether there is anything that anybody in the Commonwealth—a Commonwealth contractor is included in that—or any of the three state governments involved and the two agencies in each of those states, namely the police and mental health services, should have done that they did not do, or could have done in a better way or should not have done that they did.

We have selected Commissioner Palmer because of the respect with which he is held in the community. As you know, he is a former distinguished police commissioner, as I recall appointed by the Labor Party and then reappointed—I think it was on two occasions but, if not, on one occasion—by this side of politics. His integrity, certainly to my understanding and in my own mind, is beyond question.

I am also mindful of the unsolicited offer by Premier Beattie for his officials to cooperate with any inquiry. I would ask the Senate to be mindful of the Commonwealth’s unsolicited remarks that, when New South Wales indicated that they would usually have an inquiry when a missing person matter is concluded, we would cooperate freely with that. I am mindful of the remarks by Dr Phillips, who is in charge of mental health services in South Australia, and of the cooperation that he has always received from immigration officials, in particular at Baxter, and of his willingness to get to the bottom of these matters.

Given that there is such a willingness by officials—and I would be very surprised if there were not—to get to the bottom of this, I think the sooner we can get to the bottom of whether there is anything better that could have been done, the better. As a consequence, there will be a private inquiry headed by Mr Palmer. There have been other inquiries—for example, the Flood inquiry is one that comes to mind—that have worked in the same way and been effective. I look forward to the outcome of that inquiry being made public. Obviously, whether or not I think it is fair—and I happen to think it is fair—when the inquiry has concluded people will then be able to judge whether it has been appropriate. Certainly, I leave the way open for Mr Palmer to raise it with the Commonwealth if he has the slightest whiff or suspicion that he is not getting full cooperation from state and federal authorities. We will then look at the matter. But the understanding I have from discussions I have had with officials and from what has been reported to me from state authorities is that there is no-one in existence who does not want to find out what they could have done better if they could have, and what they should not have done if they did.


Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for her answer but I refer her to the original question, which she failed to answer and which is: can the minister confirm that her chosen method of inquiry will not have legal powers to compel the attendance of witnesses, will not be able to compel answers to questions, will not be able to administer an oath to witnesses, will not be able to compel production of documents or items such as video footage, will not be able to protect witnesses or testimony and that the report will not be protected from legal action? Minister, what is the answer to those questions? Why have you chosen to go down a route where the inquiry does not have those powers? Further, what powers does the inquiry have to call the attendance of and evidence from ministers and ministerial staff? Why have you not given the inquiry the sorts of powers that would seem to be so necessary in a case like this?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Senator, with respect, I thought I had answered by indicating to you that it was a private inquiry.


Senator Chris Evans —Why?


Senator VANSTONE —I made the mistake of assuming that you knew the difference and that you were familiar with a range of inquiries that had been held in the past, but in any event—


Senator Chris Evans —I am familiar, but why?


Senator VANSTONE —With respect, Senator, since you have asked the question again, I will answer it again. It is a private inquiry, the nature of which you have just indicated you do understand and that you therefore did understand the answer. In a nutshell, the answer I gave you was that I believe there has been an expression of more than willingness by all agencies to cooperate, and I expect that there will be. Therefore there is no need to take the inquiry to a higher level. I believe that all witnesses that are required will attend, that they will answer honestly and that Mr Palmer will not need to compel the production of evidence. I further believe that people will tell the truth. As I have said, if Mr Palmer is uncertain of that during the course of the inquiry— (Time expired)