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Minister discusses responsibility for deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon to the Philippines.

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Thursday 6 October 2005

Minister discusses responsibility for deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon to the Philippines


MARK COLVIN: The Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone joined me a short time ago.  


After a report that laid bare catastrophic failure, systemic problems, a lack of objectivity, bad record keeping and computer systems that don't talk to each other, and having heard her say that she wouldn't resign, I asked her: what price the doctrine of ministerial responsibility now? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, look, I do understand your interest in whether a minister should come or go, but what I've said in response to those questions is that's all been answered before in relation to the Palmer Inquiry. I don't intend to go over that. 


MARK COLVIN: Well I'm not really interested in whether a minister, an individual minister should come or go, my question is directed to the question of where the buck stops. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well I don't think you can give a simple off the shelf package answer to the question of ministerial responsibility, but you can say, you can say this: that if a minister didn't know, in this case for example, something that happened when I wasn't there - and the Prime Minister's made this point clear on other occasions - that where ministers had no knowledge, in these days with the breadth of departments, you're drawing a long bow… 


MARK COLVIN: So you're off the hook, because it happened under Philip Ruddock's watch. What about Mr Ruddock - should he go? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: With respect, I'd like to add to the answer that I was giving you in relation to this matter. 


What I think a minister is responsible for doing is fixing up problems as soon as they arise, as soon as it's clear that something needs to be done. 


Now frankly, that's what we've done in the Rau case. An inquiry was appointed, many commentators said it would be a closed shop and a whitewash. Very clear that the Palmer Inquiry was never set up to do that and didn't do that and was very critical of the department. 


MARK COLVIN: All right, I'll repeat my question now. Should Mr Ruddock go?  


AMANDA VANSTONE: Could I, could I… could I just finish what I was saying? 


Not only did we do that. I then asked the department to go back, or at the same time, and see where else this could've happened. 


Now when you want to talk about ministerial responsibility, what you're talking about, frankly, is just when should a minister be sacked or resign. 


What I'm talking about is ministers taking responsibility, they're actually doing the job they're paid to do. And in this case, to not only have an inquiry into Rau, but to go further and say, "Well, let's see where else this has happened," not just to sit there and say, "Well, hell, I hope there aren't any more of those and I hope no more turn up." To go on the hunt for them, so that where a wrong has been done it can be put right, that's what I call taking responsibility. 




AMANDA VANSTONE: Equally, equally, in relation to the Alvarez matter, as soon as Mr Young, her former husband, contacted my website, action was taken. 


And again, an appropriate inquiry was set up and it's being dealt with. 


MARK COLVIN: But the fact remains that you and Mr Ruddock were presiding over a department which was systemically, not just in an individual case which you couldn't have known about, disastrous. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, it's interesting that you mention that, because a question was asked today about when did this start. And I do understand the desire of some people to say this must've started under a Liberal… a National Government. 


But in fact, I raised today a case that exemplifies the very problems that we've seen in the Alvarez and Rau cases - a case of a Filipino person who was refused, and an Australian citizen, who was refused entry to Australia on a number of occasions because of what? Systemic bad record keeping, a department that was incapable of talking to the other side of the department - all very, very similar problems… 


MARK COLVIN: Senator, you've been in Government for nine years now, nine years you've been in Government. Is it appropriate to be blaming the last government? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: I'm not blaming the last government. If you let me finish what I was saying you would've heard what I was going to add on to that. 


And that is, that this case it was back in the 1990s and it had only recently been resolved. So I'm simply making the point that I do understand that from the ABC's point of view, and frankly, from some of your listeners maybe, this is about can we get a Government minister sacked or otherwise, but from my point of view, it's about recognising the problems and getting them fixed and getting on with the job and it's… 


MARK COLVIN: My interest is not in getting a minister sacked. I'm trying to find out who is accountable. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: … your suggestion was it must be the responsibility of myself or Mr Ruddock and in response to that suggestion from you, I've put the proposition to you that I know of a case which has been referred to the Ombudsman's Office, of an Australian citizen who under Labor left the country and was refused entry back in to Australia because of the very same issues that are being referred to here. 


Now you may not appreciate, but in a very large department these sorts of issues can lie dormant and the vast majority of decisions be properly made. 


MARK COLVIN: I'm returning to the issue of accountability and I'm asking you if… if… 


AMANDA VANSTONE: I just want to finish the point that I was making… that what happens when you have these systemic problems, is there comes a point where someone is unlucky enough to be the victim of a series of mistakes all coming together at once, which… 


MARK COLVIN: Unlucky? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: … more minor mistakes… - very unlucky I would say. Very. 


MARK COLVIN: Isn't this… aren't we talking about systemic failures, a decade of systemic failures? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: And the point that I'm making… 


MARK COLVIN: That doesn't sound like bad luck, does it? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well the point that I'm making to you in relation to that is, you could have an inadequate system in one part of the department, but when… and another system that wasn't as good as it could be in another, and it's only when you get someone who because of the circumstance that they're in travels through each of those and the cumulative effects of those errors hit them. Whereas, a lot of people would travel through and not be touched by a cumulative series of these things… 


MARK COLVIN: Now there's clearly… there's clearly been what effectively amounts to a major cover-up within your department. Why are we not allowed to know the names of the people who perpetrated that cover up? Why are they "A", "B" and "C"? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: I can't imagine why you would say there's clearly been a major cover-up… 


MARK COLVIN: I'll refer you to points… findings number 23 to 29 in the Ombudsman's report. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Sorry, your question was there's clearly been a major cover-up, why can't we know the names. 


MARK COLVIN: Why can't we know the names of the people who committed the cover-up in the case of Vivian Alvarez Solon? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: And with respect, while I was answering your question as to a cover-up with respect to those names, and I don't see how you can say there's that sort of cover-up. 


MARK COLVIN: I'm asking… 


AMANDA VANSTONE: And I'm giving you… 


MARK COLVIN: …about… 


AMANDA VANSTONE: And I'm giving you… 


MARK COLVIN: …why we are not allowed to know the names of the people who committed this cover-up. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: I'm about to give you the answer, but I can't… I don't accept that you can say there's a cover-up, because the answer to your question is this: that having conducted an inquiry, and Mr Comrie obviously chose not to use names for good reason, because if action should be taken under the Public Service Act, the Public Service Act requires a separate inquiry to be taken. Now that doesn't mean that someone will start from scratch and go from the very beginning. 


Mr Dale Boucher, a former officer from… a very senior tax person will undertake that. 


He will have available the Comrie report, he'll have all the background material and some of the people from the Ombudsman's Office to keep him briefed so that he can do that as quickly as possible… 


MARK COLVIN: But if we don't know who they are, how do we know, for instance, that they haven't been promoted within the organisation since this happened? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, oh look, the parliamentary system will allow all of those questions to come out, but it's appropriate at the time - at this time - that Mr Boucher be allowed to go through the processes that he needs to go through, in order to conclude whether or not action under the Public Service Act needs to be taken. 


Now I understand the media's desire to use names.  


In fact the ABC did that unfortunately and you haven't chosen to mention this of course. The ABC was a recipient of the only I think media adverse comment in the Comrie report for naming one of the junior officers who deduced who it was.  


In fact, that junior officer tried to get other people to understand, but I don't think the ABC cared a scratch when they mentioned that officer - an innocent person who was trying to do the right thing, trying to get senior officers to understand, and the ABC, because they thought they had a scoop, ran her name. 


MARK COLVIN: But that person knew for two years before… without the supervisor doing anything about it, isn't that a problem in itself - that junior officers just to the upward referral and then it stops there? 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I don't know whether you've noticed Mr Comrie's remarks in relation to the officer to whom I'm referring. 


MARK COLVIN: Yes, I have. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Who I hope gets an apology from the ABC. 


MARK COLVIN: I have noticed that, but I'm still asking you why it is that that person reported to her superiors two years before all this came out and still nothing happened and a number of more junior people knew about it, not just the supervisors "A", "B" and "C" who are mentioned in the report, and nothing appears to have happened to them either. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well as a consequence of Mr Comrie doing the report, he has recommended on the basis of discussions he's had with each of these people, and his understanding of what happened at the time, that there were three people who were the responsible officers who should've passed the information on. They didn't. And that is why he's recommended that they be looked at in terms of the Public Service Act. 


MARK COLVIN: Alright, we… 


AMANDA VANSTONE: That is why there's an inquiry in to the two who remain members of the public service. 


MARK COLVIN: We're just about out of time. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: …something is being done. 


MARK COLVIN: Minister thank you very much for your time. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Always a pleasure.  


MARK COLVIN: The Immigration Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, speaking to me earlier.