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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 44

Senator KIRK (3:22 PM) —At the outset, I have to say that I agree with the sentiments expressed by other senators here this afternoon that the case of Ms Cornelia Rau is a very sad and sorry story. It is tragic that this could have occurred to anyone in this country, whether they be an Australian citizen, an Australian resident or indeed somebody seeking asylum in this country. I believe the case of Ms Rau illustrates that there are a number of failures in the existing system. Firstly, there has been a failure in the identification of missing persons. That is quite clear. Secondly, there has been a failure on the part of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and a failure on the part of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in relation to the duty of care that she owes to all persons who are detained. Thirdly, there has been a failure of government policy generally in relation to mandatory detention—and this case illustrates that quite well.

In the case of Cornelia Rau, we have seen a systematic failure of the police and the health and immigration authorities seemingly at every turn. There was a failure to identify her as a missing person and there was a failure to identify the serious mental illness which she has now been diagnosed as having. This young woman was found wandering around in the desert, which the Aboriginals notified to police. She was then taken to Queensland, held there and then finally transferred to Baxter Detention Centre in my home state of South Australia where she was held for a period of four months until the situation that she was in and the series of failures that surrounded her case were made public.

Today I want to focus on the failures that have occurred in this case, particularly on the part of the department of immigration and the minister for immigration and, more broadly, the failure of government policy in this regard. On the question of the minister’s duty of care and the duty of care that the department has, it is quite clear that the minister and the department owe a duty of care to everyone who is in immigration detention. It is quite clear that the minister and her office should have been alerted much earlier as to the manner in which this woman was being treated and there should have been an immediate intensive investigation into her circumstances. The fact that this did not occur, that she was held in immigration detention in South Australia for four months before anything happened, can only be described as a monumental failure of the system.

The second failure of the system clearly was in this woman’s diagnosis. Until quite recently, this woman was not diagnosed as having the serious mental illness that she does have. Senator Johnston referred to the fact that it is very difficult to diagnose mental illness, and I have no doubt about that, but my concern is that the persons who were treating Ms Rau were unable or unwilling to diagnose the serious mental condition that she had.

In the time I have left I wish to draw the Senate’s attention to the broader issue that we have here: the question of how many detainees are in detention centres in Australia who are suffering from a serious mental illness and who have not been properly diagnosed. Anyone who knows anything about mental illness knows just how debilitating it is. It can lead to incidents that we have seen in detention centres: sewing lips together, attempted suicide and the like. This is the broader issue that needs to be considered following on from this tragic story.