This week


The plight of Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill woman who for six months had been locked up in a Queensland prison and in Baxter Detention Centre for four months after that, was known to a number of people. Some of them tried hard to help her and bring her to the attention of authorities. Finally, this week, a journalist’s inquiry brought her case out into the open.

The Queensland Premier apologized for the error, but his apology did not explain why if the Aboriginal people who found Ms Rau in outback North Queensland saw at once that she was ill, for ten months prison, immigration and health services did not.

Unlike Mr Beattie, the Prime Minister said that at this stage he would not apologise. We are an increasingly litigious society, he said, and he would get to the bottom of what happened before he decided if an apology was appropriate. We are not so litigious that we can sue our leaders for pusillanimity, deceit, meanness or incompetence.

To find out what really happened to Ms Rau the Minister announced yesterday that a retired policeman would conduct a private inquiry. And before anyone could be impolite enough to laugh Mrs Vanstone began to vapour in the customary way. No one in the bureaucracy – or among the private contractors – wanted what happened to Ms Rau to happen. Contrary to ‘conspiracy theories’ these people were not hard-hearted, she said. With this already resolved by the Minister, the secret inquiry should be over in no time.

Clearly Mrs Vanstone is not a blithering idiot but she thinks everyone else is. Bureaucracies are by nature hard-hearted. They are inert, impractical, duck-shoving, insensible, stupid, secretive and cruel. That they are in many cases necessary and useful, and that many bureaucrats are decent or clever people, does not alter this fact. That we might prefer bureaucrats to private contractors when it comes to our duties of care does not alter it. The fact at the heart of this issue is not what someone in the system did or failed to do: it is the system itself and the policy failure that created it.

We can presume that many people working in the detention system do not want to inflict misery on innocent people or commit rank injustices, but they do. People working in what goes by the Orwellian name of the ‘Management Unit’ at Baxter might not be sadists, but it is sadistic to lock people in cells for eighteen hours a day and film their every action including their ablutions – people who have committed no crime, who are depressed to the point of suicide, but who might be ‘illegals’.

Cornelia Rau was locked in the Management Unit, but if that was a mistake and she deserves an apology, so does ‘Hassan’ an Algerian who while locked in it was stripped and ‘internally examined’ in front of several people including women. The longer ‘Hassan’ was kept in the Management Unit the more depressed he became. That says something to most people, but not, obviously, to the bureaucrats and contractors.

What would be much more fitting than an apology is a new policy. The detention centre at Baxter and its ‘Management Unit’ are physical expressions of a bad idea. Unjust, unreasoning and contemptible things will happen there because the idea is unjust, unreasoning and contemptible. In a fit of anxiety we allowed our governments to construct our own little matchbox gulag and a private inquiry into it is as much a joke as a private inquiry into a mistake in the real one would have been. The fact that government agencies reckoned a wandering, deluded person must be an illegal immigrant speaks with marvelous eloquence of the paranoid state in which the system was born.

‘The concept of the “official secret'” is bureaucracy’s specific invention,’ Max Weber said, and no one serious has ever argued with him. But it is of no concern to Mrs Vanstone or Mr Howard. To ask us to believe that the case of Cornelia Rau is the result of some isolated mistake that will be uncovered in secret is laughable. Mrs Vanstone tells us that the secrecy is necessary to protect Ms Rau’s privacy. It is not to protect Ms Rau at all: it is to protect their lousy system.

Somewhere in it all, the Opposition appeared to detect a political possibility. Seizing on Malcolm Turnbull’s outburst of decency they pursued the matter of an apology, and are now considering whether something might be gained by a Senate inquiry. But never does the Opposition sound like people with the sort of moral instincts which led Turnbull to go further than his leader would. As the Age pointed out in an editorial: that is another question to come out of this episode – having surrendered the moral ground so thoroughly can Labor ever retrieve it?


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