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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 66

Senator LUDWIG (4:43 PM) —I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Federal Government to:

(a)   establish a fully transparent and independent public inquiry into the detention of Ms Cornelia Rau.

(b)   establish an Inspector General of Immigration Detention and an operational secretariat for monitoring conditions of immigration detention and to deal with complaints, from detainees and their advocates.

(c)   guarantee access to immigration detainees by independent external medical and psychiatric personnel.

What seems to have happened in what can only really be described as a disturbing case, the case of Cornelia Rau, is that an Australian permanent resident was wrongfully imprisoned for 10 months. It was not for 10 days—something that you might think in passing is a short period. Ten months is a significant period in anybody’s language. In that 10 months she was in the immigration detention system per se, if I can use those broad words.

What we understand so far about Ms Rau’s case is from what we have been told so far and what we can garner from newspaper articles—and that is an issue I will go to shortly: the lack of information that is being provided by the government on this matter. What we can garner so far is that she presented in Coen as a person who was behaving differently from what the locals might think was normal and she was reported to the police. The police, as I understand it, made inquiries and came back to seek further information. This is only the version that I can garner from the media. I hope and I do think that what I am going to outline is a better course for determining what happened. Ms Rau ended up under DIMIA’s control—that is, under DIMIA’s detention regime.

The case is disturbing because Cornelia Rau went not only from Coen to Cairns but also from Cairns to Brisbane, where she was in the Queensland women’s prison system—not as a prisoner of the Queensland government but as a detainee under the DIMIA system, as I understand it. DIMIA request and seek arrangements with the Queensland Department of Corrective Services for the detention of unlawful arrivals and the like by the Queensland corrective services on behalf of DIMIA. But it did not end there; that only brings us up to about October—it is not quite clear. From there Ms Rau went to the Baxter detention centre, and it has not been made clear to us yet what protocol meant that she left the women’s prison or why the decision was made to transfer her to the Baxter detention centre in South Australia.

So Ms Rau had covered a considerable distance, which would be at the very least disturbing and unsettling if you were an unlawful arrival. In this instance it is not clear what Ms Rau thought about her detention; that is a matter that requires significant further investigation. What I think Ms Rau’s case has demonstrated—even if you just look at the breadth of issues that it raises—is that there are significant cracks in the Howard government’s immigration detention system: she has managed quite easily to fall through every single one of them.

Those who are listening to this debate will know that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has ducked and weaved on this issue, particularly as to where the responsibility lies. I think it deserves much better than that. I think it is a sad case and one that requires more than the minister simply ducking and weaving. The press conference that she had before question time today left more questions unanswered than answered. If the minister were going to announce, as she did, an inquiry of the type that she did, one would have imagined—although I cannot put myself in her shoes—that she would go to the press conference prepared to answer the journalists, who were asking pragmatic, simple questions about process and how the inquiry would work. Senator Vanstone in my view failed to adequately explain to the journalists and I think to the public generally—because it was broadcast—how that inquiry was going to be conducted. She effectively took on notice some of the questions from the journalists; whether or not they get a reply is another matter. She does deserve to have to come back in here at question time and answer those questions that were asked of her in today’s question time which she took on notice—the detail of what occurred, when it occurred and how it occurred.

First of all, it appears—and I do not want to unduly attack the minister until the facts are more clearly laid out—that, from the minute the story broke, Senator Vanstone was clutching at straws, trying to blame every other agency involved in the case. I do not think that this is a matter for apportioning blame. It appears she has been trying to pull them in, to blame everyone but herself in this process.

But a curious thing happened in Senate question time today. The minister managed to admit that not only was Cornelia Rau originally detained under the Migration Act but it was DIMIA that ordered her detention—DIMIA, no-one else. That means that, far from the undertones and suggestions that Senator Vanstone has been spreading about this place in relation to the Queensland police or anyone else involved, it is Senator Vanstone herself, as the minister responsible, who ultimately should take responsibility for ordering Cornelia Rau’s detention and for her welfare from the second she came into detention, almost a year ago in March. I am not suggesting for a minute that DIMIA should not have the power to detain unlawful arrivals. That is a matter for another debate and another time. In this instance we are looking specifically at the systemic failure that appears to be rife within this department overseen by Minister Vanstone.

For argument’s sake, in cases where people arrive at airports or by other means, or where they are overstayers, the immigration officials seem to be able to do their work and deal with them in a reasonable way. But in this instance something different happened, and that requires more than just an inquiry of the ilk that is being proposed by Senator Vanstone. Was there adequate assessment of the physical and mental health checks performed? Did DIMIA perform these checks? Why did it take so long for the mental health checks to occur? Did Ms Rau’s mental health deteriorate as a result of being kept in solitary confinement, as some of the media suggest? We do not know whether or not that happened, and I am not suggesting it did. But there are questions out there that need answers. Will the inquiry get to the bottom of some of these questions that I have posed? That is a difficult question.

It looks from first glance as though, without the ability to have compellability of witnesses, without privilege, without some of the ordinary things that attach to proper judicial or open inquiries, without those types of arrangements, you may unfortunately get instances where people choose to protect their own interests first rather than try to look at the interests of Ms Rau in this case. They may turn to their legal advisers, friends and colleagues and say, ‘What shall we do in this instance?’ They may not come forward. They may not give evidence. They may not provide a snapshot. They may not provide evidence that could be used to examine the case to determine what in fact happened so that the problems can be fixed, if there are systemic problems, which it appears there are.

It is going to be a closed inquiry, not a public one. We do not know whether transcripts will be kept or made available, or whether submissions will be called for or made available. Without that type of inquiry and the powers I have indicated, I remain unconvinced that we will have a full, open, frank inquiry that will get to the bottom of it. That is what we need. That is what this government should do and it does not seem to want to actually bite the bullet and do it.

These concerns go to issues such as: firstly, why did it take 10 months; secondly, was the treatment of Ms Rau for those 10 months that she was in immigration detention humane and appropriate, especially given what we now know of her mental health; and, thirdly, how can we guarantee the safety and welfare of those that are in detention centres? Those are the questions that we need to get to the bottom of and answer. Finally, why has the minister for immigration chosen to hold an inquiry which appears not to meet the tests that I have put forward? It does not seem to meet the tests of being open; it seems to be closed. She was not able to explain clearly all the other matters to the public during the interview that she conducted today. I think that it is a sad indictment of the minister that she has failed to adequately deal with this issue right from the moment it broke. It begs the question: is there something to hide? I do not know and I am not suggesting it, but unless you ensure that it looks proper then you always run the risk that it is not. (Time expired)