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Vanstone resists calls for judicial inquiry into woman's detention

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: I spoke with Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone late today from Canberra.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Amanda Vanstone, you must've had some fairly detailed discussions with your
department by now, I would think, given all the circumstances of this case. Are you any the wiser
yet as to exactly what happened?

AMANDA VANSTONE (IMMIGRATION MINISTER): I'm a little bit the wiser. I'm always a bit hesitant to
say "very wise" about something, but a little bit wiser. I think there are two issues. One is: what
sort of system do we have in Australia for missing persons, and in particular, to take account of
missing persons who may have a pre-existing mental condition? Is that good enough, and the answer
clearly has to be: something's not right, because this woman slipped through the cracks. If, when
she went missing, the notification was there and the process had worked as I think we would all
hope it works, she would have never come into immigration detention - never. But then you come to
the next issue, which is: once she was in immigration detention, what was the process of dealing
with her mental health issue?

KERRY O'BRIEN: Is it true that Cornelia Rau was kept in isolation for all but six hours a day for
at least part of her detention in Baxter?

AMANDA VANSTONE: For part of. I don't have the details of how many days. I'm told that she would
have been - she was shifted to a different compound because of behaviour that was causing concern
and embarrassment to some of the other residents, including, for example, undressing and some other
matters. For some of the time that she was in the other compound - which is where people who have
behavioural difficulties can be sent - for some of that time, she would have been in and out during
the day as she chose; for other times, she would have only been out for a limited number of hours a
day, out of her own room.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And what about the claims that she was kept under the lights for the periods that
she was in isolation; that she was constantly under camera surveillance; that she would sometimes
be seen eating dirt in the yard; that she would take all her clothes off; that she was sometimes
manhandled back to her room?

AMANDA VANSTONE: It was clear to Immigration that this woman had some behavioural problems and
needed help, and they set about the process of ensuring that she could get that help. She arrived
in Baxter having come from the Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre, where she must have - I
haven't seen the files from there, but no doubt they're available - they must have had some
concerns, because she went to, I think, the Princess Alexandra Hospital and, from what I
understand, was admitted for a week for a pretty thorough assessment, and the assessment there was
that she didn't exhibit the criteria for a mental illness, even though she behaved oddly. In any
event, that assessment was made by professionals outside of the immigration system, outside of the
police.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The South Australian Public Advocate, John Harley, says he went to your department
in early December to express concern about the condition of the woman that he'd been told about,
who we now know as Cornelia Rau, and he was told to mind his own business. Do you know anything
about that?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I know Mr Harley, and I'll have a discussion with him at some point about
his concerns. I think he's a very reliable person. I mean, I know him personally. I haven't seen
those remarks, and I'll pursue that. What I can say to you is this: that as soon as she arrived at
Baxter, within a couple of days, there were some concerns about what the situation was, despite the
report that came with her saying she didn't exhibit the criteria for a mental illness. She saw a
psychologist, then a psychiatrist, within a month, I think, or a day or so away. The psychiatrist
saw her and said, "She needs better assessment." Within a few days of that - I don't remember the
exact dates, but within a few days, we were talking to the state mental health authorities that
have a triage system, a telephone triage system, for people in rural and remote areas, and within
two weeks, I think, of seeing the psychiatrist, all of her files in relation to her health issues,
the behaviour she manifested, the psychologist, the psychiatrist, the reports from Queensland - all
went to South Australian Mental Health.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You haven't said what kind of inquiry you intend to have, but I assume, given all
the public interest aspects of this case, that surely it has to be a public inquiry and it has to
be seen to be an inquiry independent of bureaucracy and of bureaucrats.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Oh, look, I'm certain that it needs to be seen to be independent. I'm equally
certain that there are the two factors that need to be looked at: how is it that someone with a
mental health condition, who'd either checked herself out or absconded, I don't know, and went
missing and was listed as missing, albeit quite a few months later, could be in any facility in
Australia and the stories not match up? That's just a practical thing that needs to be looked at.
And then...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Given that this is a matter, a very serious matter, that involves two
jurisdictions...

AMANDA VANSTONE: Oh, more than two. It involves four.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Four jurisdictions. Then I would suggest to you that that makes the case for a
public inquiry, an independent inquiry and a judicial inquiry absolutely compelling.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I'm not certain of that at all.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Why?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, first of all, I'm certain it has to be independent. I'm certain it has to
have cooperation of all of those jurisdictions to really be effective. I'm not certain that it's
appropriate to have the inquiry public, although clearly, the public are entitled to know the
outcome of the inquiry.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Doesn't it have to be a transparent inquiry?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, it has to be conducted in a transparent manner. That doesn't mean that
everything - for example, are you arguing that all of Ms Rau's personal files should be made public
so that everyone can pore over every bit of her life? I mean, I wouldn't be.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I would suggest to you that a judge would be perfectly competent to make those
assessments.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I think, with respect, I'm not sure that the - to the extent that any errors
have been made, they are such...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Royal commissions have the power to hear evidence in camera.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Yes, no, I understand that. I do understand that. But I think, with respect,
you're elevating the issue. I'm not certain at this point that the errors that were made, to the
extent that there were any made, were such that it requires that level of scrutiny. To the best of
my knowledge, immigration officials and States will be perfectly open and willing to get this
matter resolved. No-one wants to see this happen again. I don't think anyone - South Australian
Health...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Putting it bluntly, if there has been a stuff-up or a series of stuff-ups, then
there are people in whose interests it may be to cover this up, and surely again, it's in the
public interest that the public sees a transparent process that they can trust.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Mmm. Well, two things. I've seen a number of Premiers saying we have to get to the
bottom of this. I doubt if they'd then back pedal once they understand that their own jurisdictions
may be involved. I feel sure they're perfectly genuine and they do want this matter resolved; they
want to see what went wrong to make sure it can't happen again. I can assure you, the Australian
Government doesn't want this to happen again. We do want to find out what went wrong. And I just
make the point, Kerry: what's in the public interest and what the public are interested in are two
different things.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Amanda Vanstone, thanks for talking with us.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Thanks very much. Always a pleasure.