Reza Berati

By Margo Kingston  @margokingston1

27th February 2014

Here is the transcript and audio of  this evening’s SBS World Radio item by Greg Dyett @GregDyett on the Manus Island detention centre review and whether it will do the job. I’m thrilled there are a few journalists who understand how important this matter is for the victims and their families. Thanks for caring, Greg.

After his piece, I’ve taken the liberty of publishing a piece by David Marr in the SMH on the eve of the 2005 Palmer Report into the unlawful detention of a mentally ill permanent resident, Cornelia Rau, in Baxter Detention Centre. Palmer did his best with an inquiry which made it impossible for him. Like Morrison now, the then immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone called a private, powerless inquiry designed to fail, and it did. I pray that this won’t happen again.

Webdiary’s detailed coverage of the Rau tragedy, and that of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez, who the Immigration Department deported to the Philipines, is here. It gives me the shivers reading the stories again now, because they are almost a mirror of what’s happening now. So one reason I’m so upset at the Manus cover-up is that I’ve seen it before. It’s really nasty; only journos and concerned citizens got close to the truth, senior public servants and the Minister clammed up, rubbish inquiries were held and no-one – NO-ONE – was held accountable. Back then Labor pushed hard for a Royal Commission. This time they are limp, and my guess is they will refuse to back The Greens calls for a Senate Inquiry. That leaves journalists to push for a serious inquiry with a chance of finding the truth and delivering justice.


A leaked report from PNG has found an Iranian asylum seeker on Manus Island died from multiple blows to the head. It’s found the riots at the detention centre were triggered by the handling of questions from the asylum seekers about their future. It comes as the federal government conducts a review of the unrest on Manus.

Manus Island’s provincial police commander Alex N’Drasal prepared his report the day after 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati died of what he wrote were multiple head injuries that could have been caused by a heavy object. The commander reported that in the week before the violence took place the asylum seekers submitted a list of questions about their plight. At the top of their list they ask: Is there a process? What is it?

This week a whisteblower told the SBS Dateline program that no such process existed. Migration agent Liz Thompson was employed on Manus to conduct refugee assessment interviews and says she was told to tell detainees their only option would be settlement in PNG. This was despite the fact that local PNG politicians had made it clear that the detainees would never be allowed to settle in the country.

THOMPSON: “There is no process. There was nothing for me to do. There is no process for me to assist people with. It’s fake. I don’t believe that there is a way to fix this. It’s not designed as a processing centre. It’s designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure deterrence (of people smuggling).”

Liz Thompson suspects the detainees got upset after a PNG official told them (Sunday, Feb 16) that the PNG government had not made a decision to re-settle them.

“I suspect that he was more honest about what was actually going on which obviously we weren’t allowed to do but yes, that was, that’s what happened on Sunday, that’s what happened on Sunday. You know, the meeting occurred and then the protests started very soon afterwards (Davis) It seemed that he called a spade a spade? It’s not clear that they’re going to be re-settled in PNG  (Thompson) Which is simply what members of the Papua New Guinean parliament had been saying that very week.”

As to what occurred during the rioting, the police commander wrote that the confrontation was between the management of the centre, guards of the G4S company, as one party, and the transferees as another party.

The leaking of the police report comes as the federal government releases the terms of reference for the review it’s conducting headed by former public servant Robert Cornall.

Labor MP Chris Bowen provided this view of Mr Cornall and his task.

Robert Cornall is a good reviewer. He’s a good and respected independent public servant. But our quarrel, let me make this clear, our quarrel is with the government and their culture of secrecy, their addiction, their addiction to being sneaky with the Australian people and not upfront with the Australian people and we will never take a backward step in holding them to account for that.”

The terms of reference show the review will look at security breaches, security management, the appropriateness of service providers’ response and their ability to manage protest activity. The review will be undertaken in co-operation with the Papua New Guinea government and a preliminary report is due by the end of March.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Kon Karapanagiotidis says a broader inquiry is needed.

“You look at the key terms of reference and where in those terms of reference are they looking at the things that are causing it? I would like to see where in this we have actually got some accountability about how government practices and policies created this and what they’re going to do differently to deal with the refugee claims and do it in a timely manner and a transparent manner.”

The Australian Greens also say the review is inadequate. Deputy leader Adam Bandt says parliament should also be taking up the key issue of Reza Berati’s death

“A man has been killed while in the Australian government’s care. There are now reports that this man had his head beaten in while under Australia’s care, that’s what parliament should be debating.”

Former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston draws parallels with what’s occuring now to past immigration scandals such as the unlawful detention of Australian permanent resident Cornelia Rau for ten months in 2004 and 2005. She says when the then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone failed to announce a judicial inquiry and settled instead for an investigation carried out by a former Federal Police Commissioner, she and other members of the Canberra press gallery subjected the minister to tough questioning.

Margo Kingston says the press gallery has failed to do the same to Scott Morrison.

“I’ve just been devastated that the press gallery has had no questions at all to Scott Morrison on his inquiry and its powers, zero. I’ve been tweeting and tweeting for days, I’ve been bringing up the Rau and Alvarez matters, I’ve been explaining the playbook, I’ve been just begging journalists to their job and they just haven’t done it.”

Margo Kingston says there are compelling reasons why a judicial inquiry is needed.

“It’s crucial in something as serious as this, a possible murder and serial grievous bodily harm inside a detention centre where we are responsible for safety and welfare of the inmates, that we have a judicial inquiry, a public inquiry, an inquiry where evidence can be compelled, where people must give evidence on oath for fear of perjury where witnesses who come forward can be protected from intimidation or, or threats.”

The PNG government is conducting its own formal investigation into the unrest on Manus.

Once over lightly: the Palmer inquiry into Cornelia Rau’s detention

June 23, 2005
By David Marr
Source: SMH
  • Slow recovery Cornelia Rau reads everything written about her and

is distressed.

The Government’s Palmer inquiry into the detention of Cornelia Rau was designed not to tell the full story. David Marr reports that it has succeeded.

OVER the past four months, as fresh skeletons emerged one by one from the cupboards of the Immigration Department, Amanda Vanstone has claimed a right to silence. With each fresh scandal she’s declared: “We must wait for Palmer.” Her time is running out.

Tomorrow, all parties affected by Mick Palmer’s investigation into the detention of mentally ill Australian resident Cornelia Rau are due to return their chunks of his report with comments. Palmer is in their hands, of course, but the timetable is for a swift consideration of these responses, with the final report being in Vanstone’s hands sometime next week.

How much of Palmer’s work will then be revealed to the public has yet to be decided – by Vanstone – but in the hope of putting a political cap on this scandal, two things will probably follow swiftly: an official apology and the offer of a large sum of money to Rau.

Palmer has made it clear he believes his report will lead to a shake-up of the Immigration Department and its culture of “mindless zealotry”. A psychiatrist, Dr Louise Newman, has told theHerald that Dr David Chaplow, the psychiatric consultant to the inquiry, spoke of having “an eye-opening experience” and that the report makes “very serious findings”.

At the same time, the Herald understands that Palmer, former chief of the Australian Federal Police, has not relentlessly pursued individuals at fault in the ordeal of Rau. It’s understood his criticisms will be directed more at the system than the individual bureaucrats, guards and police who enforce it. There are indications that he will not find any of them broke the law in detaining Rau for 10 months. Palmer appears to conclude that her detention was clearly wrong but not clearly unlawful.

Whatever Palmer’s ultimate verdict on this scandal, his report won’t – indeed can’t – tell the full story. His was not a top-to-bottom investigation of what happened to Rau from the time she was picked up by police on a remote Queensland road in March last year until she was shipped out of the Baxter detention centre to an Adelaide psychiatric hospital in February. All that time, Vanstone was Minister for Immigration, yet her office confirmed last week that she has not been formally interviewed by Palmer as part of his investigations.

This investigation was designed by the Prime Minister so that the Rau scandal – like every other scandal that’s engulfed the Immigration Department over the last few years – could be played hard ball by Canberra. John Howard announced the inquiry one morning on the Sunday show and he decided to appoint Palmer. Howard would later tell Parliament: “I defend completely and unconditionally my decision to appoint Palmer as head of the inquiry.” Evidence given to Senate estimates last month shows the “powers and protections” of Palmer’s inquiry were also nutted out by Howard’s department and his office right at the start.

Vanstone had to admit she had not yet spoken to Palmer when she called the press together on the morning of February 8 to announce his appointment. All through that press conference, she stumbled over the simplest questions about the powers he would have to pursue his investigation – an investigation that could put careers on the line in the bureaucracies of the Commonwealth, Queensland and South Australia while exposing Global Solutions Ltd – if fault were found – to hefty fines and perhaps even the loss of its valuable contract to run Australia’s detention centres.

To carry out this formidable task, Palmer would have the powers not of a judge or even a policeman. He could compel no one to talk to him nor force anyone to produce documents. Those who came forward would have none of the protections against sacking or prosecution available to witnesses at a royal commission. Rau’s counsel would have no right to cross-examine witnesses. There would be no transcript. Palmer would work behind closed doors. He had six weeks and the powers, essentially, of a private detective.

Uproar greeted this news but it was blunted by the high regard in which Palmer is held as a man and a cop – and by the effusive public pledges of co-operation from key players, particularly the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie. “Queensland authorities – which held Ms Rau under orders from the Department of Immigration – will co-operate completely with an open, independent inquiry,” he said the day of Palmer’s appointment. “If there is some embarrassment, we will wear it. This is no time for buck-passing.”

Beattie’s resolution lasted about a fortnight. There was potential for terrible embarrassment here. Rau’s arrest by Queensland police, her incarceration in a Queensland prison for six months and the failure of Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital to diagnose her condition – “odd behaviour” was the Queensland diagnosis – raised issues of lawfulness, fair treatment and the professional competence of a number of Queensland authorities.

But Beattie also had a strong legal case for pulling back. He told Queensland Parliament in late February the inquiry was “an obstacle course for Queensland government officers” and when a dozen prison officers refused to co-operate, Beattie backed them. He told the Herald: “From the start, we have been hamstrung by the fact that the Palmer inquiry has not been given proper legal backing, which is why potential Corrective Services witnesses have chosen to not co-operate. Their decision is understandable given that the Palmer inquiry does not offer them protection, should any person they might name choose to sue them.”

Queensland refused to give Palmer privileged access to the files. “Mr Palmer’s requests for information and interviews have to be treated in the same way as any other request from a private individual.” On May 12, Beattie signalled the departments of Health, Police and Prisons would not provide Palmer with any information that contravened the state’s privacy legislation. A spokesman for the Premier told the Herald some information was provided to the inquiry in the end but little, if any, about Rau’s health.

Beattie effectively shut Queensland down for Palmer – but refused Opposition calls to hold a state inquiry with full judicial powers into Rau’s treatment during her six months in detention before being flown south to Baxter detention centre.

PALMER was a busy man when he got the call to head the Rau inquiry. Late last year he was appointed Inspector of Transport Security by John Anderson. The Deputy Prime Minister said Palmer was there “so that we would have a person to take up investigation if, God forbid, we have a terrorism incident in Australia”. But after only two months, Palmer put the perils of terrorism aside to investigate Rau.

He kept both his office and two or three of his staff in the Department of Transport. He hired outside consultants and gathered further staff from other government departments. Within a couple of weeks he persuaded Vanstone he needed “additional high-level resources”. These included David Chaplow, head of the New Zealand Mental Health Service, and a former commissioner of the Victoria Police, Neil Comrie.

Palmer and Comrie are old mates. Until recently they were fellow shareholders and directors of a Melbourne security firm, Global Village Survival Pty Ltd. Under questioning from Senator John Faulkner in Senate estimates, Vanstone said this connection was not disclosed to her before Comrie’s appointment. She later issued a statement denying any conflict of interest here because Global Village had no connection with the Rau inquiry.

Palmer’s initial contract for just under $300,000 and Comrie’s for a little more than $200,000 were to run until early April. By the time all these arrangements were settled, they had little more than a month to interview everyone they could and write their report.

Laconic, sharp, professional, respectful and shrewd is how Palmer strikes those he has interviewed. Some the Herald spoke to came away uneasy. Most were impressed. His manner is reassuring. He shakes hands, looks directly in the eye, considers questions carefully and responds thoughtfully.

Early in March he appeared not to be on top of things. He had a great deal to learn about immigration detention and its impact on detainees. He seemed in those early days to be focusing exclusively on Rau’s story. He was quizzing people more about the culture of the Immigration Department and the detention centres. He wanted to know about the history of detention.

Sister Anne Foale, a nun whose duties take her often to Baxter, was impressed by her dealings with Palmer. She was keen to persuade him “that it was a bigger issue than just one person”. She told Palmer: “Cornelia was very disturbed, but there are lots of people disturbed in detention, disturbed by the unendingness of it that compounds all the traumas they bring with them.” She felt she had made her point. She also came away from the encounter feeling Palmer had covered all quarters in Baxter.

There’s some doubt about that. How many detainees did he speak to? A Rural Australians for Refugees Port Pirie member, Tim Verran, was also interviewed by Palmer and tried to persuade detainees he knew to come forward and be interviewed, too. At least one did. Perhaps more. But everyone else refused. “They were too scared,” Verran told the Herald. “Speaking to Palmer was seen as ‘speaking out’ and they’d been punished for that before.”

How many Baxter guards? Almost all the guards are members of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, whose secretary, Mark Butler, told the Herald that as far as he knew, none of the Baxter guards had been questioned by Palmer. They were disappointed because they’d wanted to explain to the inquiry that the problems of the high-security management unit – where Rau was twice held – were exacerbated by poor pay and conditions. “The work is hard and the pay is crap. They can’t keep staff and can’t train new staff quickly enough. We thought Palmer might be interested in that.”

RAU – or Anna Brotmeyer as she called herself – was obviously very ill from the moment she arrived in Baxter in October. What followed was a desultory tug of war lasting four months between those who wanted to keep her in the camp and those who wanted her removed to Adelaide for treatment. While South Australia did not throw up the sort of barriers Queensland put in Palmer’s way, it’s highly unlikely that Palmer has been able to get to the bottom of the claims and counter claims of those two opposing sets of forces: Global Solutions and the Immigration Department pulling in one direction, and South Australia’s Rural and Remote Mental Health Service and a band of refugee advocates pulling in the other.

Paul Flanagan, director of the media unit for the Premier, Mike Rann, told the Herald that South Australian health bureaucrats were free to talk to Palmer if they wished. Flanagan said he was aware of none who refused. But Palmer may not have got very far. The bureaucrats are members of the Public Service Union, whose spokesman, Peter Christopher, told the Herald that he was aware of several members who refused to answer Palmer’s questions on the ground of professional medical privilege. And the list of documents Flanagan said had been supplied to Palmer – a chronology, a draft review of mental health services in the state and what Flanagan called a “context paper” – suggests Palmer was not able to dig down into the department’s files. Without that, it’s hard to see how the South Australian end of this appalling story can ever be clarified.

Nor did Palmer interview the refugee advocates who were key players in this phase of the story. Pamela Curr, campaign director of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, told the Herald: “None of the grassroots people who were actually nagging [the Immigration Department] on a daily basis about ‘Anna’ have been contacted by Palmer and yet we have diaries of the precise times we rang and the precise times we were fobbed off.”

ONLY in Canberra were bureaucrats directed to help Palmer. On the day the inquiry was set up in February, the head of the Immigration Department, Bill Farmer, directed all staff “to provide Mr Palmer with their total co-operation. This includes, as appropriate, answering questions, providing departmental documents and giving other evidence to the inquiry.” Answering questions was now part of their duties.

John Faulkner has expressed “concerns about the protection of public service witnesses” who appear before Palmer, but it seems they have not been refusing to be interviewed, though many have, on the advice of the Public Service Union, exercised their right to bring a witness with them to these confrontations. The Herald understands there’s a widespread view in the department that if there had to be an inquiry, it should be open and have full judicial powers.

Palmer appears to have come to this conclusion, too – so far as the fresh scandals go that were referred to him in early May. First came the revelation that Vivian Alvarez, an ill Australian, was deported to the Philippines years go. The next scandal broke almost at once: about 200 files in the department were identified carrying the same suspicious stamp that appeared on Rau’s file: “released not unlawful.”

How many of those were Australian citizens or residents wrongly detained? In the spirit of what Vanstone called “pulling the Band-Aid off quickly” all these cases were handed to Palmer for investigation. She, meanwhile, not only refused as far as possible to comment on the cases, but refused to ask her own officers for information for fear of “muddying the waters” for Palmer.

Reports never denied by Vanstone soon appeared claiming Palmer believed these new cases required judicial powers to be resolved. He soldiered on silently for a few weeks with this immense new caseload but then announced on May 20 that he would hand all the new material to his colleague Neil Comrie, while he finished the Rau investigation – at which point he would depart.

THROUGH all this, Rau was making slow steps towards recovery in Glenside hospital in Adelaide, completely shielded from the public. There were tentative meetings with her family. She was released for a couple of days in May and then rescheduled. She is due for release again soon. She reads everything that is written about her and is distressed – distressed to be thought ill, distressed to be seen as a prisoner.

But Canberra is still playing hard ball with her. “There have been no attempts to apologise to her, to offer to support her in any way, to provide her with access to any relevant materials, to ask of anyone if she needs more in the form of financial or any other support,” said her Adelaide lawyer, Claire O’Connor, in her submission to the Palmer inquiry.

O’Connor had a problem: Rau has a shaky recall of what happened in those 10 months she spent in detention. But neither the Immigration Department nor the Palmer inquiry will give Rau or her lawyers documents that would help her remember her time first in Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre at Wacol and then in Baxter. O’Connor wrote: “There can be no valid reason for [the Immigration Department] at least, not to disclose matters relevant to Ms Rau to those representing her. The only conclusion that one can come to is that they have matters to hide.”

So much will remain hidden when Mick Palmer finishes his work. Were this a royal commission, his final report would be accompanied by volumes of evidence, transcripts and supporting documents. There’s none of that here. All Palmer will be handing to Vanstone is a report apparently only about 120 pages long.

And Vanstone has warned she will decide what’s released to the public – in view of the overriding need to protect Rau’s privacy. That’s not an argument that impresses Rau’s sister, Christine. She told the Herald: “For the minister to hide behind Cornelia’s privacy to suppress the full report is a cynical ploy to withhold information. It’s routinely used within [the department] to prevent disclosure about what really goes on in the handling of detention cases, and the argument is wearing very thin.

“We had a lot of conflict with privacy concerns from the start. It was a classic dilemma: if you want to give absolute privacy to the victim, then you also protect the perpetrator. You can’t expose the perpetrator without revealing what they did to the victim.”