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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 33

Senator BROWN —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. I ask Senator Vanstone: what is the first date of any reference whatsoever—direct, by name or otherwise—to you of the case of Cornelia Rau? Secondly, in reference to the disempowered inquiry that has been announced today, as against calls for a judicial inquiry, and in light of the fact that this ill woman was held for 10 months under the care of your department and therefore of you, I ask why the minister has repeatedly insisted today that, rather than finding out why she failed and the department failed this woman, this inquiry is to find out what the government could have done better? Twenty million Australians know what the government could have done better and I ask the senator, if she does not know, why she should not resign. (Time expired)

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Senator, in relation to your first question: the details in relation to health issues in the detention of Ms Rau first, to my knowledge and understanding and belief, came to the attention of my office in January. However, indirectly, Ms Rau’s case—as opposed to Ms Brotmeyer’s case, that was the issue raised in January; it is still listed under Ms Brotmeyer—came to the attention of some people in DIMIA, in my office. I understand that towards Christmas Ms Rau sought an intervention under 417—I have not yet seen the letter; I only found out about this earlier today—which of course is not appropriate because she is not in a position of having a visa that has been refused and there has not been an appeal process. A reply was sent. She also wrote to someone—I do not have the name—in relation to Australian citizenship at around the same time. I can get you the details of that. I am quite happy to do that.

In response to the proposition that you put that this ill woman—clearly she was—was held in detention, can I remind you that she attended the Princess Alexandra Hospital for, I think, a week. She had an assessment by someone who has been described by mental health authority officials in South Australia as being one of the most prominent people in this field in Queensland. The diagnosis came back that the woman did not exhibit the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness. So presumably you do not want DIMIA officials second-guessing a professional assessment that has been done. Nonetheless, with that having happened in August, I think, within days of her coming she was seeing the psychologist and the GP, who indicated that we should get the psychiatrist to see her. That happened within about a month. It is at that point that we contacted the South Australian health authorities because, under the protocol that is not yet signed but is agreed on this aspect, where we have such concerns there is an appropriate section for DIMIA to contact to outline those concerns and pass the information on. The middle of November is the point at which DIMIA officials, after the visit from the psychiatrist, believed that it was appropriate to get an assessment in an institution and were seeking, according to the protocol, an assessment by Glenside with a view to ascertaining whether it was appropriate to admit her.

A journalist said to me, ‘Why don’t you just send her there?’ as if she has no say in this. People who have a behavioural or personality disorder are nonetheless capable in many instances of deciding and/or agreeing on whether to be sectioned. I can assure you that she had been seen by the GPs and the psychiatrist. There was a reluctance to section her. She did not want to go. That was the basis of some of the discussions with South Australian mental health authorities. Contrary to the belief that some advocates would have, DIMIA and the officials were working with South Australian authorities to work out the best way to handle this matter. The date of the fax that I have seen—which obviously comes after a number of phone calls discussing the matter—that forwarded this information to South Australian mental health authorities is in the middle of November.

Senator BROWN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, you have told the Senate effectively that you knew in December that Ms Rau was in detention. You have also told a press conference today that her problems by then where known to be more serious than behavioural—that is, that she was mentally ill. I ask you why you did not act. I also ask you why it is that you persist in having an inquiry to find out what the government could have done better. I ask you: can you tell the Senate what the government could have done better?

The PRESIDENT —Senator Brown, I remind you to speak through the chair.

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —What I have indicated is that officials—which includes the contracted health authorities—were concerned as to her health and believed that her problems may have exceeded those which could be described as personality or mere behavioural issues and were seeking to have that matter assessed. They did not conclude that they knew what the problem was. They concluded that we needed to get a proper assessment. Under the memorandum of understanding—which is not yet signed, but this aspect, I understand, is agreed—officials contacted the appropriate agency or section within South Australian mental health. There was some disagreement about whether it was appropriate to send her to Glenside against her will and whether it was appropriate that further assessment be undertaken with a GP and a psychologist present and with a psychiatrist present by phone. These matters were under discussion; they were not concluded. (Time expired)