No Lessons Learnt From Cornelia


Writing this article is anathema to every journalistic instinct I’ve learnt in 30 years. It means working in the dark, without information.

That’s because anyone analysing the Department of Immigration has found it to be so cloaked in secrecy that you can only get information — statistical, financial, medical — if a whistleblower is prepared to break the law. Add to that at least five contracting companies involved in the detention of asylum seekers. Even Senate Estimates can’t keep track of it all.

Writing this means being emotional rather than detached. It also means treading an extremely delicate line between family privacy and a duty to make some information public.

For readers not familiar with the story, my sister, Cornelia Rau, was wrongfully held in detention, first in a Queensland jail and then in Baxter detention centre (now closed), just north of Whyalla in South Australia. She vanished during 2004 and NSW Missing Persons detectives investigated her case.

She had been a missing person for nearly a year before we found out with great relief on 31 January 2005 that she had been identified — even if it was in detention. At first, that didn’t matter. At least she was still alive. Following the Palmer Report, which investigated her detention, she asked for compensation and was awarded around $2.6 million dollars. The sum is confidential and I don’t know the precise figure.

Later it emerged that while her fellow prison and detention inmates could clearly see she was mentally ill, it was of no concern either to Corrections in Queensland or to Immigration Department officials in Baxter. Nobody bothered to look or listen: she was just a “troublesome” category; a “behavior problem”. Is ASIO more scrupulous when assessing individual cases of real refugees currently being held in indefinite detention? We may never know.

Here is the irony regarding Cornelia. Despite the compensation windfall, which looks great on paper, her life is a misery.

Her neurological pathways have been so damaged after 10 months in an untreated psychosis, that she cannot settle in any permanent residence, she can’t sustain relationships beyond fleeting ones, and she is one of the unhappiest people I know.

The money is meaningless: it’s handled by financial administrators employed by the NSW Government; her medical needs are rarely followed up, and we rely on a network of friends and acquaintances to try and make sure she’s safe. It’s a nightmare; but anyone with a family member without insight into a mental illness would tell you that. It’s hardly unusual.

It seems our politicians and many of our other “leaders” aren’t capable of saying “enough is enough”. Some media outlets like to outdo each other in scaring uneducated listeners, viewers, and readers into thinking a couple of leaky boats are the end of the world.

It’s a conundrum. Everyone’s preaching to the converted in the media these days and every outlet will have its rusted-on demographic, including this website. Still, it’s up to outlets like New Matilda, Crikey, The Guardian, public broadcasters like the ABC and their international equivalents, and rallies like the one we saw in Brisbane and Sydney recently to show at least a minority of the electorate has an albeit weary resolve to fight for a just cause.

Cornelia was detained during John Howard’s reign but it was the ALP, not the Liberals, who set up the then-nascent mandatory detention policy under Robert Ray. This was when Paul Keating was PM.

It’s interesting to reflect that so many people still find Keating’s “Redfern” speech so compelling. Contrast that with his resounding silence on human rights and refugees. Where is that wonderfully eloquent voice? Poor old Malcolm Fraser, ill and tired, is stepping up to the mark instead. Where’s Hawke? Where’s ACOSS? Where’s the Council for Civil Liberties? Where’s Toll Holdings?

Where, most pertinently, is Mick Palmer, the former AFP boss who spent five months on a cool $2500 a day investigating the Department of Immigration during the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases, or his successor, former Victorian police chief, Neil Comrie?

I ran a parallel journalistic investigation during 2005, and I have great residual respect for Mick Palmer and the work his team did. They were stymied by a department so mired in a culture of paranoia that I suspect even blowing your nose in public was frowned upon, let alone releasing a document.

Palmer had a tough gig, and wrote an extensive report, but beyond that — not much. It’s not easy to criticise him. I’m loyal and think he’s one of the good guys at heart. But I cannot see how he can reconcile his conscience with what’s going on now, especially given the emphasis on the AFP in their regional role in this whole debate.

The Palmer Report was strong, but it was buried. It was a one-day wonder in July 2005. Only a couple of dedicated journos, lawyers and former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone bothered to read it. It was also deliberately released so broadcasters had only 10 minutes to skim through a tome of over 200 pages before going to air, as the ABC’s Michael Brissenden reported that night.

What is unusual, at least to me, is how little we’ve learnt from what was then a headline story in the media. Maybe in this age of social media and shorter attention spans we will learn even less from history than we have in the past?

We haven’t learnt that outsourcing our dirty work to private corporations — Global Solutions Limited, Serco, G4S, or one of the others — is a recipe for disaster. Firstly, all these companies are a bit like a telco mobile phone plan: obscure and impenetrable to any accountability. Whether that be ownership, tax or human rights.

The ludicrous expense of running an immigration policy just near the Javanese coast — 2000 kilometres away from Australia, like we do on Christmas Island — let alone Manus or Nauru, reeks of cynicism and incompetence. For what? A couple of redneck seats?

My oldest son was 11 when Cornelia was found in Baxter. He was a fledgling guitarist and wrote a very heartfelt song about her, helped with some lyrics by a pro-bono lawyer from the University of Newcastle Legal Centre. That’s how much it affected a then 11-year-old boy.

He even had the guts to perform it live in front of more than 400 people at the Ryde Civic Centre on 2 September 2005. Current Immigration Minister Tony Burke had stood on the same stage earlier that night, railing against the inequities in the Immigration Department and the privatisation of detention.

My daughter, eight years old in 2005, came with me to Adelaide to visit Cornelia after she had been found. Both our pictures were in the press that day, which I wasn’t comfortable with, but was par for the course. Not long afterwards, while the Palmer inquiry was in full swing, we received a letter, covered in human faeces, with a threat to kidnap my daughter. It was delivered personally without a stamp to our mailbox.

To me, that epitomised the level of hatred out there against anyone who tries, even hesitantly, to speak up for human rights and equality. We were pretty scared, but I’ve since discovered this sort of thing is routine for anyone who’s been in the public eye.

I guess the question my young and hopeful kids are puzzled about is: how have we as a society come to this?

My daughter is now 17, and tells stories about her peer group, who say they “hate refugees, because they’re all terrorists”. She often asks, rhetorically: “What is wrong with people?” For her, it’s genuine despair and bewilderment.

My own peers are more jaded. They're only consoled by the potential for a backlash against intolerance and the kind of rigid blindness and stupidity brought about by rampant and unchecked bureaucracies like the Department of Immigration.

Perhaps that backlash will happen in our lifetimes? Meanwhile, there are marginal seats to deliver to the duopoly, taxpayer largesse to go on unconscionable policies, and spin doctors to pay — so don’t hold your breath.

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