Nov 10, 2005

Migration and Ombudsman Legislation Amendment Bill 2005

Migration and Ombudsman Legislation Amendment Bill 2005

10 November 2005

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10.28 am)—I rise to speak in favour of my colleague the member for Watson’s amendment to the Migration and Ombudsman Legislation Amendment Bill 2005. Without amendment the bill resolves only some of the problems of this country’s now infamous immigration system. This bill is the government’s answer to improving the administration of its immigration policy but it does not go to the core of the problem. As the member for Watson’s amendment outlines, the solution can be realised only by effecting a change of culture within the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. This bill does, however, aim to introduce greater transparency in relation to the processing of applications and it enables the Commonwealth Ombudsman to contact an immigration detainee where that person has not made a complaint to the Ombudsman. These are improvements to the existing model. Time limits on the processing of protection visa applications and extension of the Ombudsman’s powers to investigate detention centre private contractors are consistent with Labor Party policy. However, this bill does not go far enough.

This bill does not address many of the acknowledged problems identified through the Palmer report. It does not address the dire need for the development of a national missing persons policy, nor does it implement a mechanism to review, within 24 hours, every decision to detain, as recommended by the government’s own inquiry. Cultural problems within the department identified by the Palmer report, which could be addressed here, are not considered in the government’s bill. We now know that Ms Vivian Solon could have confirmed her identity if the DIMIA official had given her the opportunity. Instead, they stuck to their disgraceful presumption that she was an illegal sex worker.

We now know that the current Privacy Act exceptions are flexible enough for the department to have permitted the release of Ms Cornelia Rau’s information legally, but DIMIA officials—I quote from the report—‘asked the wrong questions’. This bill does not even require the DIMIA official overseeing a case to make compulsory checks of the missing persons database or other currently available databases. The current shambles in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs is indication enough that much more needs to be done before we see an end to unlawful detentions and deportations, including the disgraceful deportation of our own citizens. The Senate inquiry into the Migration Act has revealed 222 cases of potentially wrongful detentions, 222 cases where it appears that people who were lawfully in Australia had been put into immigration detention and kept there, sometimes for many years.

The Senate committee has met to consider the mess that is the immigration department. Just weeks ago they learnt that one of the more than 200 people who may have been wrongfully held in immigration detention remains locked up at Baxter detention centre. The department also failed to reveal that two of those 200-plus people who had been wrongfully detained were detained for between five and seven years. Again and again this department fails. It cannot stay out of the limelight this year and for all the wrong reasons. The department was described in the Comrie report in the following way: failure, catastrophic, inaccurate assumptions, dehumanised, defying commonsense and decency. These are not overstatements. Terms such as these accurately reflect the culture, countless bungles and chaos of this department.

Just consider the case of Ian and Janie Whang of my electorate of Grayndler. The report states that the department engages in ‘defying commonsense and decency’. Ian and Janie know all about that. They were removed from their classrooms in Stamore public school by DIMIA officials on 8 March 2005. Without prior notice to the education dept, without the presence of a legal guardian, they were picked up and taken to Villawood detention centre. The report outlines the ‘failure and inaccurate assumptions’. Ian and Janie know all about that too. After being taken to Villawood in March, they were released over four months later in July 2005 after it was revealed that it was a departmental bungle that put them in there in the first place. The report calls the department’s actions catastrophic.

All the children at Stanmore public school, every child at that school has grown up with Ian and Janie Whang. In fact, the whole community around that school has been affected by that catastrophic engagement with DIMIA. 2,410 members of the local community signed the petition that I tabled in this House in opposition to Ian and Janie’s removal and I applaud each person who signed that petition for standing up against this injustice. Two kids wrongfully held in detention for over four months is appalling in Australia in 2005. And finally the report says the department is dehumanised. Once again, Ian and Janie know all too well about this aspect of the department.

Ian, 11 years old, went to Stanmore Public School from kindergarten right through. He witnessed other detainees trying to commit suicide during his detention at Villawood. In fact, he witnessed three separate incidents of detainees trying to end their lives. These are things no 11-year-old should ever have to see. They are memories no child should have to live with. I have met with Ian and Janie and I can assure members of the House that they are deeply affected by the reality of DIMIA’s bungling.

The injustices committed against Ian and Janie, and those suffered by so many detainees under the Ruddock/Vanstone DIMIA system, come from a culture of assumption and denial. I do not blame the bureaucrats. I blame the ministers at the top, who have promoted a culture that has led people to believe that that is what the government wants imposed on people—a culture that is prepared to use fear in the community in order to secure political gain.

Senator Vanstone even continued to deny responsibility for Ian and Janie’s wrongful detention when they were finally released four months later. On the day that they were released from Villawood, Senator Vanstone said that they had been initially taken there at the request of their mother. That was simply not true. It was not until the evening news programs had run their course that the minister finally acknowledged that Ian and Janie were not unlawful citizens and that they had been detained in error for four months. That was a claim that a mother had sought her kids to be taken to Villawood and locked up for four months!

But then again, the government has form on this issue. Philip Ruddock, when he was minister, said that mothers and fathers threw their kids overboard. The government has form in dehumanising people—and it comes from the top. Ian and Janie were denied their freedom and education due to another departmental mistake, and this is a mistake they will live with for the rest of their lives.

Senator Vanstone has made announcements about how much money the government will be spending to improve the way the department is run and to improve facilities for detainees. Those changes are welcome, and many are long overdue. Yet many of these changes have only happened as result of the tragic bungles we have heard about this year. My colleague the member for Watson, in his speech, spoke about the conditions that still apply in Villawood. Senator Vanstone made much about taking along pliers and cutting razor wire at Villawood. Well, I will tell you what happened to me when, as a member of the Australian Parliament, I went with an ABC TV crew to Villawood. They had security come and seek to stop my entry and access to that detention centre. That is the culture that exists in DIMIA from the top down as result of this government’s political manipulation.

Ultimately, it takes much more than words and money to fix a department and a system that is in this much strife. It takes a change of heart—but you first have to find people with a heart before you can change it. And it takes a change of guard. There are many people in this government—one of them is the member for Cook, sitting opposite—in whom I would have faith as being prepared to recognise human rights. I applaud the fact that there are people in this government who have stood up in their party room against the way that Ministers Vanstone and Ruddock have continued to have bungle after bungle.

I must say it is very offensive to see the former minister wearing his Amnesty International badge into the parliament. What an absolute disgrace that is! The question has to be asked: does this government have any understanding of the damage they are in inflicting upon the lives of these detainees? There is now a long list of 222 victims of this department—names like Rau, Solon and Hwang, which are known around the nation.

The government must take the morally and economically responsible step of returning the management of detention centres to the Commonwealth and locating all detention centres on Commonwealth territory. While the number of detainees has decreased, the outsourcing of detention centre management to Global Solutions Limited has actually increased the cost to the taxpayer. However, more importantly, the moral cost of outsourcing is simply too high. The Hamberger report was damning. The conditions in which those five detainees were transported by a private operator between the Maribyrnong and the Baxter Detention Centres makes me sick to the stomach. They were driven through the desert in the back of a van with no air-conditioner, no food, no light, no water, no medication and no access to a toilet. This in Australia in 2005!

The minister’s response to the Hamberger report was to renegotiate these private contracts. The DIMIA culture of denial and cover-up struck again. Labor says, ‘Terminate these contracts and restore dignity to the lives of detainees.’ In continuing to outsource management to GSL the minister is denying the damage being inflicted on the lives of detainees. These private contracts are a barrier to a more humane treatment of detainees. Senator Vanstone’s response was to arrogantly say, ‘I’m still standing.’ Could there be a more insensitive, unsympathetic way of sending a message to these mistreated members of our society that this government just does not give a stuff, that it just could not care less? You have only to look at the way in which detainees are treated with regard to their mental health to see the full extent of the minister’s lack of compassion.

The submission of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists to the Senate inquiry said:

Many detainees—in particular those seeking asylum in Australia have suffered human rights abuses, including torture, in their countries of origin; family members may have disappeared or been murdered, and many are separated from their loved ones as well as their homes and countries …

And let us not forget that the overwhelming majority of these people are later found to be genuine refugees. Yet we still hear no apologies from the minister for the 222 cases of potentially wrongful detention. We see no acceptance of responsibility by the minister. Senator Vanstone continues to dodge and deflect criticism of her management of this department. Where does the buck stop? Rather than perpetuating this culture of denial and assumption Senator Vanstone and the Prime Minister need to tell the truth. They need to come clean about where the catastrophic management and culture described in the Comrie report comes from. It is clear. I suggest they read Dark Victory, by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. That magnificent expose of the culture imposed by this government, prepared to play the race card in order to get across the line in a close election.

But they do not have to go that far, because the government’s own reports say it. The Comrie report makes it clear that this culture comes from the top. This culture of fear is created and perpetuated from the top of the Howard government, which we saw most graphically when the Tampa sailed into Australian waters. During that time we heard the terrorism card played. We heard that kids were thrown overboard by their parents. We heard that these were not real refugees, that they were here to cause harm to Australia. These people, most of whom were fleeing the Saddam Hussein and Taliban regimes, which were evil enough for us to send Australian men and women to war to fight, were sent to the middle of the desert, and worse still we excised our borders and sent people to Nauru.

Mr Burke interjecting—

Mr ALBANESE—Of course. As my colleague the member for Watson said, not only were we prepared to declare war on Saddam Hussein and the Taliban but, prior to that, we had declared war on the victims of those regimes. Remember the Prime Minister saying, ‘Not one of them will set foot in this country’? Well, many of them are here now because they were refugees and they were legitimate asylum seekers, and they will make a great contribution to this nation.

The government needs to show responsibility. I think the junior minister in this portfolio said it best. When the shadow immigration minister, the member for Watson, who has taken up these human rights issues with passionate defence, asked a question about the flawed culture within the immigration department, Minister Cobb said of the department—and the timing of what he said was interesting: ‘This is a department, who since 2001, has done the job the government asked it to do.’ You bet it has. Since 2001 the government has chosen to go down this road and the inevitable consequences have been suffered by Cornelia Rau, Ian and Janey Hwang, Vivian Solon and the 222 wrongfully detained people. It is inevitable that these things will happen in an oppressive, harsh regime which constantly has one eye on creating fear in the community in order to secure political advantage. It is about time it stopped. It is about time that the minister actually took responsibility, as required under our Westminster system, for the actions of the department.

If the minister had any integrity whatsoever, she would look at the report that used terms such as ‘failed’, ‘catastrophic’ and ‘dehumanised’ to describe the department that she ran and she would ring the former minister, Mr Ruddock, and say, ‘Let’s hold a press conference.’ And before he walked into that press conference, the former minister would take off that little silver badge that offends so many people. I have been an active member of Amnesty International since before I became an MP—since my days in Young Labor, which was some time ago. I wrote to Amnesty and resigned because I do not think having Minister Ruddock as a member of a human rights organisation should be tolerated. I understand the difficulty that the organisation has in dealing with the government and I respect the fact that many decent people, including the conveners in this parliament, the members for Reid and Cook, are fair dinkum about the issues they see as important. Minister Ruddock and Minister Vanstone would hold that press conference and say, ‘We accept responsibility. We resign because at the end of the day the culture of hate, fear and dehumanisation that has led to this catastrophe, in the report’s own words, is our responsibility.’ I commend the amendment to the House.