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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 45

Senator BARTLETT (3:30 PM) —I have heard some senators today say that we should take the politics out of this matter. I could not agree more—it is a terrible story, a terrible ordeal that is still continuing for this woman and her family—but that should not be used as a way of trying to silence criticism. That is what this government is doing. We criticise what appears to have happened and we are abused and told, ‘You are playing politics’. If that is the best defence that the government has, it is just going to keep saying it, but it is certainly not going to silence me or plenty of other people.

We owe it not just to this woman but to everybody who has been touched by mental illness to get to the bottom of this incident and to get some good from what is obviously a terrible situation: greater understanding, greater awareness and greater accountability for how people have been acting to date. You cannot get accountability—the bottom line—if you have a secret inquiry. If all the evidence is presented in secret you cannot have accountability. That is not a criticism of Mr Palmer—that is not to say that he is not up to the job—but a simple fact: how can you have accountability, how can you increase public awareness and how can you have faith in the outcome, in an area where people’s trust has quite obviously been shaken, if you have a secret inquiry?

Obviously, if there is a matter that affects the privacy of Ms Rau, an inquiry can hold a session in private or not publish some evidence. But I have noticed that already, conveniently, stories are being put on the front page of some tabloids about her alleged activities in other parts of her life. I am sure there will be convenient bits of information put into the public arena to try to harm people’s sympathy for Ms Rau, playing on people’s lack of understanding of mental illness—no concerns about her privacy there. I have too much experience with this government, and in this area of immigration in particular, using the excuse of privacy as a blanket to cover up everything. There is simply no way that it is an adequate excuse to say that privacy means that we should not have this inquiry in public. Secrecy about the evidence is unnecessary. If Mr Palmer is as good as the minister and the government insist he is—and I have no reason to think otherwise—then of course he can make a judgment as to when it is appropriate to have a session in private.

There is no legal protection for the evidence that is given. What if somebody—perhaps somebody who has worked in these facilities and is involved in any aspect of this case—wants to report some wrongdoing somewhere? They will have no legal protection for their evidence. They will have no protection against ramifications. It is a massive disincentive to tell the truth if you do so in private and you know you have no protections.

In question time today I asked the minister: can the asylum seekers, the detainees who are the key to this woman’s identity being established, tell what they saw? The minister’s answer basically was ‘I’ll think about that’. Could she give a guarantee that, if they give evidence, the evidence of these people—who are living in fear of being deported every day of the week and who are in a detention facility behind closed doors where all sorts of consequences can be played out on them for giving evidence—will draw protection? No. When she was asked, ‘Will Mr Palmer be able to examine allegations of mistreatment of other people in Baxter detention centre to try to determine whether there is a pattern?’ she said, ‘No; we are going to quarantine this as much as possible and keep everybody else out of it.’

I have had allegations of mistreatment repeatedly made to me over the years. In relation to mental health I have had allegations made to me just in the last week about people trying to get into Baxter with an independent psychiatric assessment and being told not only no but also ‘if you try to push this we will ban you from even coming to this centre at all’. I do not know whether that is true but I have plenty of reason to assume that it is. If that is the way people are treated when they are trying simply to establish the wellbeing of people in detention centres, is it any wonder that situations like this have happened?

There is no doubt that if it were not for those asylum seekers Ms Rau’s identity would not have been established. She may have ended up in Glenside but she still would have been an immigration detainee within that facility, with all the consequences that go along with that. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.