The Guardian 20 July, 2005

Palmer Report:
Damning findings, no change in policy

"How could an Australian resident of German origin be detained in prison in Queensland for six months, and at the Baxter Detention Centre for four months, and not be identified for all that time? How could this person's long-standing medical condition remain undiagnosed? Why did it take so long to have her re-assessed in a dedicated psychiatric facility, despite a continuing record of 'odd' and 'bizarre' behaviour?"

These are just some of the numerous questions asked in the report handed down by former Federal Police Commission Mick Palmer last week.

Despite earlier reserving the right to withhold the full report from the public Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone released it shortly after its delivery via the department's website.

The damning findings within the report lambasted every section and strata within the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) all the way up to the Minister herself.

Ms Vanstone was left no alternative but to issue an apology along with the report, though it fell far short of a full acknowledgement of culpability as outlined by Mr Palmer, and certainly lacked the same depth and breadth as his report:

"Mr Palmer finds that mistakes were made. The Government acknowledges these mistakes and accepts that changes need to be made within the Department.

"Mr Palmer has identified systemic weaknesses in DIMIA which contributed to the length of Ms Rau's detention, the failure to establish her identity and meet her mental health needs.

"On his preliminary analysis of Ms Vivian Solon's case, he finds that the same systemic problems are involved. The Government regrets that DIMIA systems have failed in these cases.

"The Government apologises to Ms Rau and Ms Solon for the treatment they received."

Palmer's omission

However, while Mr Palmer analysed the Department's institutions, structure, systems and personnel roles in great detail, he left the most significant contributor to Ms Rau's detention untouched: the government's policy of, and legislation prescribing mandatory detention for suspected illegal immigrants.

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle labelled Mr Palmer's report as "a recipe for business as usual".

"Mr Palmer's report offers a bureaucratic solution to a policy problem. As a result it is doomed to fall short of the public's demand that our immigration policy is made compassionate and humane", Senator Nettle said.

"There are no recommendations that recognise that unlimited mandatory detention is often the cause and always an aggravating factor of detainees' mental illness.

"No amount of improved training and improved bureaucratic systems will prevent this mental illness whilst people continue to be locked up indefinitely in desert prisons like Baxter.

"Even if all of Mr Palmer's recommendations are pursued there will still be a fundamentally uncompassionate and inhumane system in place."

Minister Vanstone, who has disgraced herself in every portfolio position she has held since Howard came to power — Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs; Minister for Justice; and Minister for Family and Community Services — followed usual form and steadfastly refused to resign.

And while Bill Farmer, the former head of the Immigration Department who was forced to resign over the Rau/Solon scandal, is still on track for his plum diplomatic posting, questions are now being raised within the Indonesian government about his suitability for the Ambassador's position.

Some key findings of the Palmer Report:

  • DIMIA's inquiries concerning Ms Rau focused on establishing her identity for the purpose of enabling her removal from Australia. There was no corporate policy for or instruction to review the continued validity of the 'reasonable suspicion' that Ms Rau was an unlawful non- citizen.

  • There is no automatic process of review sufficient [to ensure] that the power to detain a person on reasonable suspicion of being an unlawful non-citizen [under the mandatory detention act] is being exercised lawfully, justifiably and with integrity.

  • DIMIA officers are authorised to exercise exceptional, even extraordinary, powers. That they should be permitted and expected to do so without adequate training, without proper management and oversight, with poor information systems, and with no genuine quality assurance and constraints on the exercise of these powers is of concern. The fact that this situation has been allowed to continue unchecked and unreviewed for several years is difficult to understand.

  • Ms Rau was detained in Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre for six months – excessively long time. She was not a prisoner, had done nothing wrong, and was put there simply for administrative convenience…

  • Statements by DIMIA operational and field staff make it obvious that many of DIMIA's compliance officers have received little or no relevant formal training and seem to have a poor understanding of the legislation they are responsible for enforcing, the powers they are authorised to exercise, and the implications of the exercise of those powers.

  • Officers with direct responsibility for detaining people suspected of being unlawful non-citizens and for conducting identity and immigration status inquiries often lack even basic investigative and management skills.

  • There are serious problems with the handling of immigration detention cases. They stem from deep-seated cultural and attitudinal problems within DIMIA and a failure of executive leadership in the immigration compliance and detention areas.

    The full text of the Palmer Report is available in PDF form from the Minister's website:

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