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Minister responds to criticism in the Neil Comrie report on the Vivian Alvarez case.

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Friday, 7 October 2005



FRAN KELLY: Senator Amanda Vanstone, the Minister for Immigration, joins us now. Minister, welcome.


AMANDA VANSTONE: Welcome, and thank you for welcoming me, yes, good.


FRAN KELLY: Amanda Vanstone, this report from Neil Comrie concludes that when DIMIA officers first interviewed Vivian Alvarez in 2001 at Lismore Base Hospital they formed the view that she was likely to be an unlawful non-citizen, and that assumption underpinned everything they then did. Mr Comrie finds that removing unlawfuls had become a ‘dehumanised, mechanical process and a priority within the department’. That’s an awful criticism of our public servants, isn’t it, that it’s dehumanising?


AMANDA VANSTONE: The government accepts Mr Comrie’s report. He was, of course, interviewing people associated with the removal of Ms Alvarez and he came to that conclusion. As I say, the government accepts Mr Comrie’s report in full.


FRAN KELLY: As a nation we should be ashamed that a major department of ours, the Department of Immigration, has in place dehumanising processes, shouldn’t we?


AMANDA VANSTONE: We can look at parts of the report and take it out and, as in this particular comment that relates particularly to Ms Alvarez, because they’re the people that Mr Comrie was particularly interviewing, and we can ignore other parts of the report—for example where he points that there were people who had realised what had happened and were trying to get it fixed.


But in any event, when something happens that shouldn’t happen, when people are treated in a way they shouldn’t be treated, none of us should be happy about it, none of us.


FRAN KELLY: And the big question is: shouldn’t somebody take responsibility for what is described by Mr Neil Comrie as a catastrophic incident in this case, and for a department culture overall? Doesn’t someone need to take responsibility for this?


AMANDA VANSTONE: I think it’s interesting the way some people look at taking responsibility. I think, for example, taking responsibility as the Minister, when you find a problem, realising that that may not be the only example, going on a determined search to see if there are others so that any wrongs that have been perpetrated can be put right, and that’s what happened in relation to the Rau matter. As soon as it became clear, the nature of the problem, a proper inquiry was set up and the department was set on the task of seeing wherever else something like this could possibly have happened again. And all of those cases were, again, also referred off for proper inquiry.


Now, I suspect what you mean, and also incidentally then, an inquiry not to find out just what happened but what could be done to make sure it didn’t happen again.


FRAN KELLY: To fix it?


AMANDA VANSTONE: And we’re doing that. I suspect what you mean is, though: why doesn’t a minister, some minister, lose their job, as opposed to being interested in substantively fixing the issue.


FRAN KELLY: I think obviously the issue should be fixed. I guess what I mean is: what do we mean about ministerial responsibility these days, a plank of the Westminster system. If something so appalling as this can happen, this culture can be allowed to develop, ‘systematic failures’ they were described as by Neil Comrie. And not only do heads not roll, the minister who was in charge of the department at the time is still around the Cabinet table as Attorney-General, and the head of the department at the time is given an Australia Day honour and make Ambassador to Indonesia. I don’t understand why that matches this dictum of ministerial responsibility.


AMANDA VANSTONE: I think the answer lies in an understanding of the sorts of systemic failures. None of these cases were something where you could say: look, here’s a person or a small group of people who, had they done something completely differently, you would say the outcome would have been different. There were people who tried but the IT searches for example, the machines, equipment wasn’t good enough. There were people who tried but one part of the department doesn’t talk to another, not in a literal sense but in a record-keeping sense.


So you have a situation where, as a consequence of a number of things not being as good as they could be, as we now can make them with technology, you have those incidents coming together and you have what is clearly a catastrophic outcome. I understand t hat.




FRAN KELLY: But Minister, this wasn’t just technical failure that Neil Comrie documents. Mr Comrie talks about the people in the department at this period were motivated by a policy that there was a need to remove unlawful citizens out quickly. Now, that’s a policy, that’s not technological failure.


AMANDA VANSTONE: … [inaudible]  this happens frequently on the ABC where the interviewer simply wants a particular outcome and overtalks what you’re saying, and I’m not going to get into that. The point that I’m making is that you can sometimes have things happen that are catastrophic, where you can say: look, what these one, two, or three [inaudible] and if they had [inaudible] and it is not the case in any of these circumstances. It’s a situation where there’s a confluence of bringing together of a range of lesser wrongs that all converge, and you can’t say that any one particular person is responsible.


For example, I can give you an example of a woman who was an Australian [inaudible] in the Philippines who, on numerous occasions, was refused entry into Australia because of poor department record keeping, because of the department not … one section of the department, in record terms, not speaking to the other. And that incident happened in the early ‘90s and only thankfully was resolved last year, I think, or maybe even early this year, because the woman wanted to come back to Australia and visit her [inaudible].


Anyone [inaudible] is something that has only happened recently, or in the last 10 years, they are sadly mistaken. This is a growing department where there have been information technology systems and record-keeping systems that have been added on as the department has grown, and it has got to a point where that will not do, and they need new and better systems that do talk to each other.


Now, I know that answer doesn’t suit those who want to see a ministerial head, who are more interested in the politics of it than the substance, but that is the substance of the answer.


FRAN KELLY: Well Minister, I mean I think you’re misconstruing really what the intention is here, because I don’t think it does come down to just technological failures that Mr Comrie was talking about.


Minister, I’m just mentioning … the phone line you’re on is breaking up a little, so …


AMANDA VANSTONE: I don’t say it does come down to only technological failures. I do not say for one minute that everything is perfect in terms of the attitude within the department—I don’t say that. That [inaudible] …


FRAN KELLY: Minister, we’re losing your line here, so I’m not sure if you’re going through a tunnel or something.


AMANDA VANSTONE: No, I’m not going through a tunnel. I’m in a perfectly clear area.




AMANDA VANSTONE: It’s perfectly clear reception on my part.


FRAN KELLY: Okay, well, we’re having trouble with you here. Can I just move to the moves you’re putting in place to try and fix this?


AMANDA VANSTONE: Apparently not so much … enough trouble to interrupt me and tell me not to go on with what I’m [inaudible] …


FRAN KELLY: Sorry, Minister, are you there?


AMANDA VANSTONE: Oh, I’m [inaudible] I’m here all right.


FRAN KELLY: Okay. Minister, I just wanted to ask you about your $230 million plan to try and fix this. Can you tell us briefly how that will work? What will change things here?


AMANDA VANSTONE: Ah, so reception is working well enough again [inaudible] …


FRAN KELLY: Just now it is, Minister. It’s in and out.


AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I’m very pleased. The $230 million will make a significant difference. There’s a [inaudible] money going into much better [inaudible]. There’s money [inaudible] so they will talk to different sections of the department. So, for example, an inquiry made in the compliance area will have the information from the citizenship area [inaudible] sections of the [inaudible]. There’s a new division in the department that is specifically focusing on client services, so that we’re a much more client-focused department—something I’ve spoken about on numerous occasions. And I think with the training, with the IT, with the client focus, we’ll have a very much improved department that will be brought out of information technology and record-keeping systems that, frankly, [inaudible] something like 20 or 30 years ago.


FRAN KELLY: All right. Minister, it may not seem like it to you but the line is bad, so we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast .


AMANDA VANSTONE: Always a pleasure.


FRAN KELLY: That’s Senator Amanda Vanstone, the Minister for Immigration.