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South Australia: Minister is unable to release report into conditions at Woomera Detention Centre but discusses key issues.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: Its contents are restricted to the public but from what has been released it does confirm the Woomera Detention Centre is no place for children. The South Australian government was handed a report yesterday, by child protection officers, on conditions within the facility. It found children are not allowed to eat outside of mealtimes, that there is no access to proper education and that many are suffering from severe mental problems. The federal government is questioning the report’s accuracy but new Premier Mike Rann maintains conditions in Woomera are unacceptable and he will meet with Philip Ruddock next month to fight for improvements. At his side will be Stephanie Key, the state’s social justice minister, and she is with us now from Adelaide.


Minister, good morning.


STEPHANIE KEY: Good morning.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Now, what will you and the Premier be telling our immigration minister?


STEPHANIE KEY: There are a number of issues that have been raised by the child protection officers’ investigation—this is post the Easter debacle—and we are really concerned that, in particular, young children and toddlers seem to be in an even more difficult situation than we understood. Just very simple things like parents are not allowed to feed toddlers outside set mealtimes, so if they don’t eat the adult food provided in the dining mess at designated times then they just don’t eat. And anyone who has had children will know that they usual graze, and I just can’t imagine how this will be a good thing for children. The experts don’t think it is either; they see this as being a problem. Probably something that is a little bit more known by people outside the detention centre is that children don’t have proper education and if some of them, their families, do end up living in Australia, those children will be really behind the eight ball as far as their education is concerned. There is no real organised ‘English as a second language’ classes, which you would have thought was a basic thing that could have happened out there and there needs to be, we believe, a greater focus on vocational education for some of the older detainees, some of whom I’ve met, and they are saying that if they do eventually find out whether they are going to stay in Australia or not, they feel that they need to be able to study and focus on what they might do when they live in South Australia.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: So far the federal government has refused to engage in any discussion about those specifics because they are questioning the report’s accuracy.


STEPHANIE KEY: Yes, well this is a new angle that came up yesterday. We sent our report off in good faith, and as has been mentioned, Premier Rann and the Minister for Education here, Trish White, and myself are hoping to meet with Minister Ruddock early in May, so this was going to be part of our agenda, to talk to him about some of our concerns. I have got no reason to doubt that child protection officers and the multi-disciplinary team that went up Woomera—and I think that this is really a red herring that there is something wrong with the accuracy.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: How was the inquiry held? How was it run?


STEPHANIE KEY: As has been said we ... as we’d normally do is send up a team—probably this was more of a multi-disciplinary team—but we sent them up to respond to notifications and issues that had been raised with our officers. We had a bit of trouble getting back in because permission to get back into Woomera wasn’t forthcoming for a few days—that was very worrying—but in the past all of our reports and notifications have been supported by the federal government. So I don’t know why this is happening all of a sudden.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: And now that it has happened, now that the report is out, why can’t parts of it be released?


STEPHANIE KEY: Well, it is not the property of the public, unfortunately. We have a memorandum of understanding that limits what the state government, and particularly me as the minister, can say publicly. So we have been trying to be responsible and we’ll continue to....


VIVIAN SCHENKER: But why is that, minister? What is there in that report that the public oughtn’t to know?


STEPHANIE KEY: There are some individual cases, case studies, that are detailed in the report and it wouldn’t matter whether it was Woomera or anywhere else, I wouldn’t be releasing that to the public.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Why couldn’t we know about that without the names? I mean, what’s wrong with hearing a case study? Obviously you keep the names silent because....


STEPHANIE KEY: There are two issues there: one of them is that I am not in a position, through the memorandum of understanding that was signed by the previous government by Minister Dean Brand, to be able to speak as I would with other issues in my portfolio....


VIVIAN SCHENKER: No, I am not having a go at you. I am simply asking you what the rationale is behind not releasing it.


STEPHANIE KEY: What we also have tried to do is make sure that the federal government know about the issues. And as I said, up until now we have had what I would consider a reasonable relationship with the federal government. This new area of the report being questioned, I haven’t actually been told that directly by the federal government; I’ve only heard this from the media. Secondly, if that is the case then I’d be wondering why, all of a sudden, there’s been a change of policy in response because, as I’ve said, the professional opinions of the staff, in the department that I represent, have actually been upheld in the past. So this is a completely new approach by the federal government.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: The Baxter Detention Centre will be opened at Port Augusta in June. Is this at least partly about trying to wrestle some control from the federal government over conditions at the new facility?


STEPHANIE KEY: Not at all. What we are trying to do here is say: these are the issues—and there is a whole lot of them—that have been raised by the people in the Woomera centre, the sort of situation that detainees have found themselves in, the problems we’ve had, particularly for young people and children, and if we are going to have yet another detention centre, these are the issues that could be avoided to try and minimise the problems that we have got there. For example, space for toddlers to play, space for young children and proper bedding for children so that they don’t have to sleep on the floor. I have raised the issue of the mealtimes, which seems to be unnecessarily harsh, and issues like education, having a reasonable education that will have some outcomes particularly for older people who may end up staying here.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: In your opinion, should the state governments have more control and more responsibility in some of these areas?


STEPHANIE KEY: Well, I would say that we already have demonstrated, as a state government, that we are capable of taking up these issues well and following them through and I really don’t see why detainees should have any different treatment.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: How likely are you, do you think, to get a sympathetic hearing from Philip Ruddock next month?


STEPHANIE KEY: I have no idea. This latest objection to the report that we’ve put up concerns me. I need to find this out formally. I really need the federal government to say, look, we don’t think that this report is adequate or can be substantiated or whatever they are going to say, so that we can give them further information. But I would suggest that Philip Ruddock meet with us as a matter of urgency if they don’t believe our report.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Okay, we might check back with you when you have got a firmer picture from him. Good to speak with you this morning. Minister, thanks very much.




VIVIAN SCHENKER: Stephanie Key, South Australia’s Minister for Social Justice.