Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2007


Government Response to Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Report

6:57 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This document is a response from the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship to the Ombudsman’s report to him under section 486O of the Migration Act. That report is actually the next document on the list. The new minister’s response, dated 1 February—which I guess makes it one of his very first actions—is very inadequate and has some worrying signs. The document from the Ombudsman is one of a series of reports that the Ombudsman has done on people who are in long-term immigration detention. It refers to personal identifiers 105/06 to 112/06. The Ombudsman and his office have investigated the circumstances behind their detention, examined and reported on some details to do with that, including their conditions, and also made recommendations. When there is a new minister, it is a time to see whether that person will grasp the opportunity of being a fresh face to make changes or immediately become a captive of the department and flow with the advice of department officials.

It should not be forgotten that the reason why these reports from the Ombudsman are coming forward—the only reason why the parliament is getting this information—is that the government made changes to the Migration Act in response to public pressure. This pressure culminated in a laudable stand by a small number of Liberal Party backbenchers who said enough was enough with respect to the number of people who continued to be traumatised and harmed by open-ended, long-term immigration detention. Whilst I did not think the agreement that those Liberal Party backbenchers achieved was sufficient—we still need more change—it did at least mean changes were made that would allow some degree of scrutiny. I think it was about a year and a half ago now, and people may recall some of the controversy around that. That is why we have these reports before us now.

One of the criticisms that was made at the time was that the Ombudsman was empowered to be able to investigate all of these circumstances so that we would get to know what was going on, but all the Ombudsman could do was then make a recommendation and it would be up to the minister to act if they chose. What we are seeing now in this document, which is the minister’s response, is that the minister is choosing not to act. In many cases this is the previous minister, Senator Vanstone, who has chosen not to act.

I draw particular attention to statement 108/06 about a particular detainee. It is a combined second and third report for this person from the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman first reported on this on 17 January last year with regard to this person and the report was tabled in parliament back in March. A person who was at the Villawood immigration detention facility until May 2006 was then transferred to the Toowong Private Hospital in Brisbane, which is where some people with significant mental illnesses caused by their detention are transferred to. He was finally granted a temporary protection visa on 6 October 2006.

The Ombudsman makes three recommendations about that person. In particular, there is the recommendation that the temporarily visa be transferred to a permanent visa. The person in question is from Syria. It is extremely unlikely, as we know from past practice, that the person would ever be able to return to Syria, let alone in a couple of years time. His medical condition, which was already very serious in the first report, the Ombudsman said has worsened since that last report a year ago. He spent nearly six years in detention before being found to be entitled to protection, yet he still only has temporary protection.

As for the minister’s response to that recommendation—and there were two other recommendations with it relating to other things—not only has he not agreed to it but he has not even mentioned it. It is not even acknowledged in the minister’s response that there was even a recommendation. That suggests to me that there are still some cultural changes to be made in the immigration department. That also suggests to me that already there are very early but nonetheless very worrying signs that the new minister is going to acquiesce to that still poor culture within the department. He is going to ignore very clear, very strong and very concerning recommendations from the Ombudsman and just let these very damaged people continue to suffer for no reason at all other than government stubbornness and intransigence. If we have a new immigration minister who is going to accept that, we have still got a problem. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.