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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 43


Senator JOHNSTON (3:20 PM) —There we have it: the opposition’s sole interest in this whole matter distils down to the fact that they anticipate a whitewash. That suits their political agenda—a whitewash is the allegation against this very respected and learned former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. He has already been hung, drawn and quartered by the opposition in this place by the label—the epitaph—of a ‘whitewash’. This is a great tragedy that in today’s Australia we can mistakenly, inadvertently or wrongfully incarcerate someone who is mentally ill and in circumstances where nobody has been able to accurately and reliably determine the truth for so long. Over many years, I have had some considerable experience with schizophrenia and those who suffer from this malady. In my experience it presents a very broad and often inconsistent group of outward patterns and manifestations in terms of conduct and personality traits. It is not easy to define or diagnose; it is not easy to detect in the personality of a person who may well be very adversely affected by this mental illness.

In these circumstances, my call to the opposition is to take the politics out of this situation. We must build into our system a response that protects people like Cornelia Rau from ever having this sort of thing happen to them. We need to be extra careful that our mechanisms for the identification of missing persons have some consistency and ease of access across state borders and boundaries.

When I look at what the facts appear to be—from newspapers, other reports and indeed from what the minister has said—the first issue that was confronting authorities in Australia was identification. People who know anything about those suffering from schizophrenia know that this is usually at the top of the list. Schizophrenics completely lose recollection of their context. So a woman saying that she is of German citizenship, speaking fluent German and identifying her parents would, on face value, have to be taken as being quite plausible. I must say that authorities would be very astute and completely out of the ordinary to be able to detect that as a false representation.

The next issue is, as I say, the extent and nature of the person’s mental incapacity. Schizophrenics are very difficult to diagnose. It takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of time with a subject to understand that they are not functioning normally intellectually. I must say that it strikes me as very odd that medical advice in South Australia—and I do not cast aspersion on this—was that she was unsuitable to be admitted to the Glenside facility in South Australia. So, by all accounts, she presented to those who should know as a very difficult case.

All I want to say in closing is: let us get the facts, let us get the advice of the agencies involved and let us get the advice of the psychiatrists. It is not a matter for politics and it is not a matter that the opposition can seek to get any mileage out of. We must build protections into this system and learn from what we have seen and read about in the last week or so on the tragic case of Cornelia Rau.