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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 72

Senator KIRK (5:12 PM) —I rise to speak this afternoon on the urgency motion presented to the Senate by Senator Ludwig. I spoke earlier today on this matter and I indicated then, as I do now, that it really is a very sad and sorry tale indeed. Not only is it a very sad situation for Cornelia Rau, but I think it also reflects very badly on the government, on the minister and more generally on the government policy of mandatory detention. In the time that I have available today, I want to expand on what I said earlier today, particularly in relation to the failures that are obviously in the system of mandatory detention that have been brought to light as a consequence of Ms Rau’s situation.

We have seen in the last few days that the tragic case of Cornelia Rau has gained a great deal of media coverage, as it should have, and it has brought about a considerable amount of outrage and disbelief in the wider Australian community. People have been left wondering just how it could possibly be that an Australian resident could spend 10 months in a detention centre or in a hospital, during which time the authorities were attempting to identify her. During much of the time she spent in the Baxter detention centre, because of her mental illness she was acting in such a way that the authorities could only deal with this by putting her into what is termed the management unit and allowing her to suffer.

We have heard today from the minister that it is intended that there be an inquiry into this matter, which of course we do commend. However, our concerns are that the powers of this inquiry will be inadequate to bring to light exactly what the facts were in this situation and exactly where the failures in the system occurred.

Labor say in the motion before the Senate today that we believe there needs to be a fully transparent and independent public inquiry into the detention of Cornelia Rau. Senator Ludwig went into more detail about the powers that Labor consider this inquiry ought to have in order to fully expose the facts and the weaknesses that are quite evidently in the system. Labor also call upon the government to establish an inspector general of immigration detention and an operational secretariat to monitor conditions of immigration detention and to deal with complaints from detainees and their advocates. Finally, we say that there must be guaranteed access to immigration detainees by independent and external medical and psychiatric personnel.

As I said earlier in my remarks this afternoon, this case reveals systemic abuse and failure within the system that is in existence at the moment. We have to ask ourselves: how could a woman who is as mentally ill as Ms Rau seems to be find herself in the predicament that she is in? How could immigration authorities reach the conclusion that they did in relation to this woman? The plight of Ms Cornelia Rau raises the wider issue of how detainees are treated in detention, particularly when they have some kind of mental illness. We can only conclude from this very sad and sorry tale that this is not the only incidence of a person who has not been properly assessed being in immigration detention and not being properly treated.

Since this matter came to light, a number of lawyers, including lawyers in South Australia, have raised cases regarding their own clients or those of other lawyers who have received similar inadequate treatment and responses to their mental illness. A prominent lawyer in Adelaide, Ms Claire O’Connor, has indicated—and I think she is right on the money here—that it is unfortunate that it has taken the plight of an Australian resident—namely, Ms Rau—to highlight what is a systemic problem in the system. Ms O’Connor has said that one of her clients, an Iranian asylum seeker, suffers a severe mental illness and, since being in Baxter detention centre, has attempted suicide 20 times. Ms O’Connor has said that this man has not received adequate treatment since he has been in detention. Ms O’Connor has indicated that it took months of court appearances before the Commonwealth would allow her client to be examined by an independent doctor. She says the term used by the Commonwealth lawyers was that the standard of care for mental illness at Baxter on the ground was ‘excellent’ and that if there was anything wrong with him they would know. Once the Commonwealth finally conceded, a doctor from the Royal Adelaide Hospital examined him and independent medical treatment was received, he was transferred immediately to Glenside Hospital, which, I understand, is the hospital Ms Rau is currently receiving treatment at.

That is an example of another case where the treatment that is being received or the assessments that are being made about detainees in the Baxter detention centre are clearly inadequate. Unfortunately, we can only assume that there are many other detainees who are in a similar situation to Ms Rau and to this Iranian asylum seeker, who is a client of Ms O’Connor and who suffered the same kind of treatment that Ms Rau received.

On a wider point, this very sad and sorry incident really puts the focus on the government’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. It also tells us something about how we see ourselves as a nation. We quite readily allow the imprisonment of people who are already traumatised and who can show they have suffered harsh treatment in their own country—often including persecution, which can give rise to very serious mental illness—yet we seem to be comfortable with detaining these people purely on the basis that we are attempting to protect our borders. As we know, Australia is the only Western country that enforces a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive in the country without visa documentation.

There have been independent reports into the conditions in our detention centres. One was released last year by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, who highlighted in their report that mental distress in varying degrees is very much a common manifestation of detained persons within our detention centres. They also expressed concern that there was a lack of correlating mental health support in the system. The case of Ms Cornelia Rau certainly highlights that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission were correct in identifying this as a major failure in the system. It should also seem obvious to most people that a detention centre is hardly a conducive environment in which to recover from a situation where they have been traumatised or to recover from mental illness. However, this is the system that is in place. Again, the Cornelia Rau case just exposes how badly people can be treated as a consequence of this system.

More broadly, I think this case really exposes the extent to which the treatment of detainees in the manner in which Ms Rau has been treated has just become normal procedure for persons who cannot be identified as being lawful citizens. Essentially, it shows that we are happy to treat human beings and their human rights with contempt and that the onus is upon them to prove that the authorities are wrong in categorising them as being unlawful citizens in our country. Of course, as we now know, Ms Rau was an Australian resident. She had a right to be in this country and there was certainly no lawful authority for her to be detained in the manner in which she was.

The other thing that I think this case exposes is, as I said, in relation to public attitude. It took a group of detainees within the Baxter detention centre itself to highlight the plight of Ms Rau. As I understand it, they brought it to the attention of refugee advocates who, in turn, attempted to bring it to public attention. I think that in itself is very concerning but, again, it is as a result of the system that is in place: there is no open public scrutiny of what goes on behind the closed doors of Baxter detention centre and it is left to detainees and refugee advocates to bring to light the atrocities that are often occurring behind those closed doors.

Many speakers have spoken about the number of errors and failures that happened in our system which led to Ms Rau being left in the shocking circumstances that she has found herself in. I think that it is concerning and it suggests that the humanity and compassion of Australians is drifting further and further away from mainstream Australia. We are losing that sense that we have always prided ourselves on. We now seem to live in a country where the emphasis is on punitive measures in response to persons who appear to be, and often are, fleeing persecution in their own countries.

Labor have called upon the government to establish an independent and transparent public inquiry with all of the powers required to call evidence from all of the relevant authorities. Furthermore, there is a need for full resourcing of the inquiry and, given the seriousness of this matter, the inquiry should take place as a matter of haste and should report as soon as possible. We believe that aspects that ought to be investigated in the course of this full, public and transparent inquiry include the process leading up to Ms Rau’s detention and dealings between DIMIA and the Queensland police, including the availability of a missing persons notification. We say that the inquiry needs to look at the relevance of establishing an independent inspector general of detention, who would be supported and advised by the Immigration Detention and Advisory Group. We believe the inspector general should be able to monitor conditions and resolve complaints from detainees and their advocates.

The inquiry should also look at the desirable extent of independent external medical and psychiatric personnel to ensure sound monitoring of detainee conditions. There is a need to look at the monthly justification of continued detention after 90 days as well as the effect of the intrinsic tendency for a higher hurdle on psychological and health issues given the reality of detention centres. Finally, there is a need to investigate the adequacy of DIMIA’s database and reporting procedures for overstayers. This is a tragic incident and it deserves a response along the lines that Labor has outlined.