Cornelia Rau ... leaked memo shows immigration suspected she was Australian last year. Image - www.abc.net.au

Cornelia Rau … leaked memo shows immigration suspected she was Australian last year. Image – www.abc.net.au

Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable. – Franz Kafka

It is now well over 10 years since Mr Palmer was appointed to examine and report on the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). That department has now morphed into the Department of Border Protection. In 2005 Mr Palmer’s report found a number of glaring deficiencies that have plagued the department. There were also a series of cultural problems at the department that saw it perform and undertake some rather extraordinary decisions. At the time The Age newspaper reported the following:

“”Mindless zealotry” prevails within the Immigration Department, says the report of Mick Palmer, the former Australian Federal Police commissioner heading the inquiry into immigration detention.

And he was forced to confront Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone when department officials refused to fully co-operate with his investigation.

The Sunday Age believes that Mr Palmer took his complaints directly to Senator Vanstone after his team ran into a brick wall around the case of Vivian Alvarez Solon.

Senior immigration officials are believed to have told Mr Palmer soon after he began his inquiries that they were “squeaky clean”, and that his inquiry would prove that.

Ms Alvarez Solon, an Australian citizen, was illegally deported to the Philippines in circumstances that Mr Palmer is believed to have savagely criticised in his report, which is thought to have been handed to Prime Minister John Howard on Friday.

This was the day Mr Howard struck a compromise with Liberal dissidents over immigration reforms.

Mr Palmer is believed to have indicated to Senator Vanstone that he was also disturbed by suggestions made by an immigration media adviser that the inquiry into the Alvarez Solon and Cornelia Rau controversies would take only three weeks. The time limit implied the report would be a whitewash.

Soon after Mr Palmer confronted Senator Vanstone in early May with his complaints about department stonewalling, Senator Vanstone told the Senate estimates committee on May 25 that there was no point changing policy, processes and legislation without cultural change.

“The culture of the department must recognise that complaints are an opportunity to review, change and improve performance to do things better,” she said.

During the Senate estimates hearing Senator Vanstone announced changes to immigration processing based on Mr Palmer’s preliminary findings.

They included the establishment of a national identity verification unit, the appointment of detention review managers, and the enhancement of health services inside detention centres.

Inquiries by The Sunday Age this week have also revealed:

  • In what appears to be another attempt to blunt the impact of the Palmer report, Senator Vanstone has belatedly ordered her department to set up a health advisory panel to vet the delivery of mental and physical services in detention centres. According to the contract between the department and the centres’ private operators, Global Solutions Ltd, the panel should have been established more than a year ago.
  • The Palmer report is likely to call for a big shake-up of the entire immigration detention system after finding that overlapping responsibilities between the Department of Immigration, Global Solutions and private health contractors led to the delays in identifying and treating Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill Australian resident wrongly detained at Baxter for months.
  • The report devotes a chapter to the department and the “mindless zealotry” prevailing in certain sections, including the detection and compliance branch. It is believed to be scathing about the circumstances in which Ms Alvarez Solon was deported, especially the way in which a doctor’s opinion was obtained stating she was fit to travel when she clearly was not.
  • Failure to substantiate claims that Ms Rau was roughly and inappropriately handled at Baxter by security staff.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration Department confirmed yesterday that steps were being taken to establish the health advisory panel. She said delays in establishing the panel had been caused by difficulties in finding health professionals.”

It is now ten years on and it must be said that a whole series of new concerns have been raised about the self same department and the culture it demonstrates in regard to all manner of visa. Let me give you an idea of some of the cases that I have had exposure to or contact with that lead me to be concerned about the performance and culture of the DIBP:

Case 1: Dr Suhail Durani: Even after the Federal Court has deemed that the DIBP had acted incorrectly in cancelling the visa of Suhail Durani, the department continues to place impediments in his path. At a recent time he enquired as to the department issuing him a visa to return to Australia after visiting aged parents in India. They refused to allow the issue of visas on the basis that he might not qualify for re-entry into this country. Details of his case can be read online at various places. I have also done a number of radio interviews on the matter. See here, and here.

Case 2: Dr Bernhard Moeller

Case 3: Dr Siyat Abdi Hillow

Case 4: Dr Cesar Sofocado

Case 5: Enamul Kabir

Case 6: Dr Nora Aziz

Case 7: Dora Carias

Case 8: Hassan Asif

Case 9: Zahra Ramadhani

Case 10: Maria Neville

These are but some of the cases that I have been involved in or been aware of. In almost all of these cases the department has had their decision overturned by ministerial intervention. Some continue to fight the decisions even today.

But let us go back to the Palmer report. The report was very much into the detention policies of the Australian government but some of the broad principles that it espoused are relevant across the functions of the DIBP.

Palmer’s findings of some serious issues of the culture of DIBP were presented to the then Minister Amanda Vanstone. Subsequent inquiries as to the way that the department has been managing the issues have continued to raise matters of concern. In 2012 the review of the department found as follows (emphasis added):

“The Secretary and the Acting Secretary are widely respected by both staff and stakeholders. The Secretary demonstrated deep personal knowledge of all areas of the department’s operations. He is respected for his ability to lead and manage through years of crises, criticism and successive ‘transformations’ of the department. The recently arrived Acting Secretary is recognised and welcomed for his leadership experience in other areas of the APS, his personal interest in good management, and the fresh perspective and opportunity for renewal that he brings to the department. While dealing with external pressures, events and crises, DIAC’s internal focus in recent years has been on making the necessary changes in response to the findings in the 2005 Palmer report Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Immigration Detention of Cornelia Rau and the 2005 Comrie report Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Vivian Alvarez Matter about failures of process. This has involved repeated structural changes, changes to process, changes to senior personnel, changes to ICT and other systems, and a sustained effort to change culture. However, in the review team’s view, the department has been only partially successful in developing control mechanisms to reduce the risk of future failures of process. The department will therefore need to continue to improve its management processes to deal with this continuing risk while seeking also to lead and manage, in a less reactive way, as new post-Palmer – Comrie crises and external pressures, such as IMAs and detention issues, continue to challenge it.”

On the basis of the ten case studies cited above, it is fair to say that the department has not been particularly successful in achieving any modicum of change that is appropriate. The decisions in each of the ten cases and the actions of the department have been demonstrative of a serious cultural problem.

I must emphasise that this is not a criticism of the Ministers of the department over the last ten or so years. That criticism will go to issues of party policy and are a separate issue. Also over that 10 year time frame since the Palmer report we have had both of the major parties controlling the reins at various times. This is a criticism of the internal machinations and the bureaucracy within which the operatives at the management level function. As indicated above a number of the decisions above have been overturned by Ministerial intervention.

I look forward to a further report from Immigration as to their adherence to and compliance with issues raised by Palmer and Comrie.