Senate debates

Thursday, 9 February 2006


Commonwealth Ombudsman: Covering Statement

Debate resumed from 7 December 2005, on motion by Senator Bartlett:

That the Senate take note of the document.

5:07 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Document 43 is the covering statement by the Commonwealth Ombudsman on the assessment of appropriateness of detention arrangements. I think it is important to speak to this document and to remind the Senate at every opportunity of this process, which is continuing at the moment. Indeed, it was reflected in question time today when it was touched on in a question to the immigration minister.

The ongoing assessment by the Commonwealth Ombudsman of a range of cases of people who may have been wrongfully detained is a very important process in detecting the many flaws that have existed in the decision making processes of the immigration department in this area of determining whether or not somebody needs to be put in migration detention. There are of course many other aspects of the department’s functions that also have problems with decision making; I will not touch on those at the moment. But, in addition to looking at individual cases, it is worth noting the wider aspects of the process—that is, the appropriateness of detention arrangements in general.

We have had many debates in this chamber about mandatory detention and whether or not it is a good thing, and the Democrats have consistently and very strongly opposed mandatory detention ever since its implementation in the early 1990s by the former Labor government. It has caused an enormous amount of suffering, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, for no great gain for the community. It is important, rather than to just state a position, to continue to try to push the case for continued reform. One of the problems with the continued piecemeal reform that has happened, where little changes are made in response to public pressure or in response to problems being exposed, is that the overall policy consistency of the approach becomes more and more fragmented

One unfortunate consequence of some of the changes that have been made to detention arrangements is that there are now an array of people with identical histories, backgrounds and circumstances in completely different situations in the community. Some people who were released from detention centres as part of the changes announced in the middle of last year are living in the community but are still, in a legal sense, in detention. They are able, via a special ministerial determination, to be out in the community. They are able to get all sorts of assistance—health care and those sorts of things—much better than they would if they were in detention centres, but they are still not able to work and they are still not on a visa.

The real problem is that, while it is good to get people out of the detention centre environment, this cannot be seen as a permanent solution. It was a short-term solution that recognised that keeping those people in detention any longer after a number of years was not viable and was causing very serious mental health problems for many of them. After that initial positive move, the problem then becomes: what happens next? I have met some of these people. I recall one that I met at Maleny Folk Festival when I spoke there on New Years Day. I had met them previously. They were in detention and are now in the community. They face the situation of literally having no idea what their future holds or what is going to happen from one month to the next. They cannot get a job or study—they are in limbo. That is not satisfactory. As has been said many times, whilst a detention centre—a jail environment—is bad for people’s mental health, it is not just the physical situation. It is the loss of control in people’s lives—the loss of control over their future. So, even though they are out in the community, they are still very much not free. And the health consequences of not being free continue to occur.

So, whilst I acknowledge and recognise the advances that have been made by the government and the minister, they cannot stop there. We have to keep pushing to get these anomalies, inconsistencies and continued injustices addressed. I think that is a key part of what the Ombudsman’s broader role is: to look at a broader, complete policy overhaul. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.