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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 42

Senator WONG (3:15 PM) —It is pretty clear from the answers given by Minister Vanstone and that contribution by Senator Fifield how the government proposes to deal with this serious issue and the serious questions being raised by the opposition and other members of the Senate. When we are asking legitimate questions about what occurred when, the sequence of events, when they were told and how come this was not brought to their attention we are told by Senator Fifield that we should not get bogged down in that sort of detail and that we should be focusing on the facts. Pardon me, Senator Fifield, but I would have thought that the Australian public have a right to know when the minister’s office knew, whether they took any action and why these issues when raised by people such as the Public Advocate in South Australia were not drawn to the minister’s attention or were not acted upon. The Australian public probably has a right to know the answers to those questions.

The other obvious tactic that both the minister and the senator have engaged in today is to seek to suggest that any criticism the opposition makes of the inquiry and the lack of powers associated with it is somehow a criticism of former Federal Police Commissioner Palmer. There is a straw man argument if I have ever heard one: in answer to any legitimate criticisms about the whitewash inquiry that has been put in place by this minister let us set up this argument that somehow the opposition is impugning somebody who is well respected on both sides of politics.

The minister failed to answer some serious questions in question time about the powers or lack of powers associated with this inquiry. That is not a criticism of former Commissioner Palmer. These are serious questions about things like how come the inquiry does not have the power to compel people to give evidence? Why has the inquiry not got the power to protect witnesses? If you have an employee of Baxter detention centre or a person who might, for whatever reason, be fearful of giving evidence to this inquiry, surely you would think that one of the things you would turn your mind to as the relevant minister in establishing an inquiry would be how to ensure that anybody who has relevant evidence can give evidence in an inquiry without fear—without any concern of victimisation or any retribution or defamation action or any of the various legal problems that could arise from giving such evidence. But has the minister dealt with this issue? Does her press release refer to issues like this: how do we actually ensure witnesses are protected in the same way that witnesses before Senate inquiries are protected? Is that dealt with? No, it is not. The only thing that is dealt with is the terms of reference.

When the opposition raise these legitimate questions, what do we get from the other side? What do we get from the minister and those senators on the other side who are lining up here to support her today? We get an accusation that somehow we are impugning Mr Palmer’s reputation. That is not the case. What we are saying is that there are some very serious questions associated with the case of Ms Rau. It is astonishing and distressing that a woman with a serious mental illness can have been in detention for so long without authorities becoming aware of who she was or correctly diagnosing her mental illness. It is tragic that this woman was placed in Baxter and that she was placed in solitary confinement—if the media reports are to be believed—for a period of time. These are serious issues and the Australian public deserve an explanation. They deserve a full and open inquiry which is able to take evidence as needed and which is able to take evidence from people who might be fearful or concerned about giving evidence and so forth.

Finally, on this issue of playing politics, I heard the minister on a number of occasions, and various interjections by senators on the other side when we were raising legitimate questions about this issue, criticising the South Australian Mental Health Service, the Queensland police, and the Queensland hospital. I say to them: do not take the high and mighty ground here. From what we have seen in the chamber today there has been a great propensity on the other side of the chamber to blame anyone else—any state official, state department or state government—for what is a very concerning story which we must get to the bottom of. If Senator Fifield is going to talk about not playing politics I suggest there should be some discussion on that side of the chamber about not responding to any legitimate question that the opposition, the Greens or the Democrats raise on this issue by having a go at some state department. (Time expired)