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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 41

Senator FIFIELD (3:10 PM) —This is a tragic case about a human being in unfortunate and very difficult circumstances. No-one seeks to avoid these facts. No-one seeks to portray it as anything other than a very regrettable incident. No-one should—and I hope no-one will—seek to make political capital out of the difficult circumstances of Ms Rau, and I sincerely hope that the opposition will not seek to do so.

At this stage of the incident, it is probably premature to offer an apology. The important thing is to establish the facts and see if there was anything more that could have been done in the case of Ms Rau. To that end, Minister Vanstone—who has advised the Senate today—has announced the details of an inquiry into Ms Rau’s case. The minister has advised, as we have heard, that the distinguished former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer will conduct the inquiry. Senator Ludwig said that there was no need to discuss the integrity of Mr Palmer, the support that Mr Palmer has. But I think it is important to do so. It is important to ensure that we have on the record, from both the government and the opposition—and I am pleased that Senator Ludwig has expressed confidence in former Commissioner Palmer—that he is a distinguished former Australian Federal Police Commissioner. He was initially appointed by Labor when they were in office. He was reappointed by this government upon ascension to office.

I think it is worth taking time to note that former Commissioner Palmer is beyond reproach, and I think any criticisms of the inquiry do, in some way, seek to reflect upon Mr Palmer. I do not for one second think that Mr Palmer would seek to involve himself with an inquiry, would seek to conduct an inquiry, unless he felt that he had the tools, the authority and the resources to properly undertake that inquiry. Those who say, ‘We support Mr Palmer, but we are not so sure about the inquiry,’ should be very careful that they do not impugn Mr Palmer’s integrity. We can all have confidence in the independence of this inquiry because former Commissioner Palmer is in charge of it.

The minister also released today the terms of reference of this inquiry. They are as broad as they can be, but they focus on the central issues relating to the detention of Ms Rau: the interaction between the Commonwealth and state agencies, particularly police and mental health providers. It is important that this inquiry is a private inquiry. Absolutely, its findings must be made public. But it is important for Ms Rau’s privacy that it be a private inquiry. It is also important to ensure that the focus remains on establishing the facts and the sequence of events. We do not want distraction from establishing the sequence of events. What do we know thus far?

Let us deal with the substance, not the politics. There is a huge amount of misinformation currently circulating. There is understandable concern in the community. The community wants to get to the facts. We all understand the concerns of members of the community, the families and the parents of people with disabilities. We want to make sure that what happened here does not happen again. We hope—and I am sure that it will be forthcoming—that we will get the full cooperation of all four jurisdictions involved in this matter. Senator Vanstone has been very forthcoming. She has been totally upfront about when she was advised and when she first became aware of these matters.

But we have to make sure—I do not hold out hope—that we do not descend again into the opposition’s tired old refrain of: what did you know, when did you know it and who did you tell? If we descend to that level of debate on this issue then we are really missing the point. The point is to establish the facts. It is only once we know the facts that we can establish whether there is something that should have been done that has not been done. It is only then, when we know the sequence of events, that we can determine what can be done to make sure that this does not happen again. Senator Ludwig wants to prejudge the inquiry. He wants to state already what he believes the facts to be. To be responsible we have to establish the sequence of events. (Time expired)