KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 1 / January-February-March 2006 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

George Newhouse
the need for culture change in the Department of Immigration

March 5, 2006 —Brisbane— The QLD. Refugee Action Committee held a one-day conference asking “Unfinished Business: Where To Now For The Refugee Policy?” George Newhouse was the keynote speaker.

I’m really honoured to be invited to address you today. I am part of the legal team acting for Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon and the parents of Richard Niyonsaba.

I’m going to make an admission. I’m relatively new to the refugee issue. I’ve led a relatively cloistered existence, but because what I found was so horrifying, what I’ve learned through each of these women’s cases and the death of Richard Niyonsaba, I have become a passionate advocate and will continue to do so until the Department of Immigration changes its ways. We’re here today to talk of “unfinished business”. Yes, there is plenty of unfinished business with that Department.

If you are all still waiting for culture change in the Department of Immigration (DIMA), I hate to tell you that will be waiting a very long time before you see anything meaningful. The reasons for this are complex. They range from the political imperative to win elections and the manipulation of voters by fear and self–interest, to a global clash of cultures being played out in the streets of Cronulla and through our immigration policy.

From our first contact with Aborigines to the end of the “White Australia” policy in the 1970’s, Australians have had a poor record on immigration and race. There was a short improvement during the terms of the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments but changes in local and global politics have seen the balance shift back against refugees and asylum seekers.

You might disagree with my assessment of the sources of our immigration policy but there is no doubt that it is ruthless and effective. Its effectiveness is based on gutting the independence of the public service, removing judicial oversight of DIMA officers and relying on a decline in journalistic standards and public debate.

As a society we are just not interested in the misery of others. In part, this arises from a sensory overload. The pace of life has increased; we are bombarded by the internet, radio, television and mobile phones and the demands of our work lives and families deaden us to the images of suffering each night. We respond to simple messages — like race and difference. But simply pushing the race button is not enough. The demise of Pauline Hanson proved that.

Most Australians are sophisticated enough to understand that wave after wave of immigration has been successfully absorbed into our country — but the underlying debate has moved on from race to a clash of cultures and there is no denying that the events of 9/11 are etched in our communal consciousness and its message resonates in our psyches. John Howard finds a willing adversary in his “battle” with Muslim fundamentalists and it is essential that more moderate Muslim voices speak out against fanaticism both locally and internationally.

You don’t need to accept my view that an originally racist immigration policy is now being reinforced by global politics to see that the sick culture in the Department of Immigration has not changed. Yes, Petro Georgiou has affirmed the principle that children should only be detained as a last resort and reduced the numbers of people in detention, but the Immigration regime remains unscathed.

We still have a Migration Act that removes the rights of an individual to a day in court and promotes suspicion and prejudice. A DIMA officer must, under section 189 of the Migration Act detain a person they suspect of being an unlawful non-citizen and hold them until they no longer have that suspicion. Their decision is not capable of effective review. The Palmer, Comrie and Senate reports on the Solon and Rau cases all criticised the operation and implementation of this section of the Act. Most DIMA officers do not have the skills or analytical framework to properly exercise their power to deny a person’s freedom. Even a murderer has the opportunity to have their day in court but not an asylum seeker.

To allow ill equipped DIMA officers to be the judge, jury and executioner of a vulnerable person’s life is asking for trouble. No wonder perfectly innocent people with mental illnesses are being caught in this dragnet. You only need refer to the 300 wrongful detention cases currently being investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman to see the folly of our laws.

In the Senate report on the Removal Search and Discovery of Ms Vivian Solon, even Liberal Senators agreed that the section 189 of the Migration Act, needs urgent reform and yet that recommendation has never been acted upon.

When our High Court was asked to review the Migration Act they chose to reaffirm an apartheid system which strips alleged “non-citizens” of the constitutional rights that we allow even the most hardened criminals.

Far from learning the lessons of the Rau and Solon cases, the government, driven by the demands of their department has actually made it more — not less — difficult to get access to a lawyer and to the courts. These are measures that would have ensured that Vivian Solon would never have been deported and that Cornelia Rau would not have been locked up and tormented for 10 months in Baxter.

The serious cultural problems within DIMA that were exposed by Mick Palmer and Neil Comrie continue today. The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars improving IT systems and buying coffee mugs, mouse mats and t-shirts with the department’s new slogan “People – our business” but the lack of accountability, defensiveness and unwillingness to engage in genuine self-criticism or analysis remain. The deep seated cultural and attitudinal problems within DIMA persist despite all the investigations and criticisms.

Early this year I contacted the Department after the death of Richard Niyonsaba, a 3 year old Burundian boy who died within hours of arriving in this country, I might add, at the invitation of the Australian Government. Richard had died as a result of the outsourcing of the government’s International Humanitarian Resettlement programme to a company called ACL a private company previously involved only in English language training. Following Richard’s death, I became aware of another fifteen cases of serious neglect and abuse by ACL and I wanted to make senior DIMA officers aware of these cases.

DIMA’s response was to “circle the wagons”, defend their decision to outsource their resettlement role to a profit–making venture and deny that there were any problems. No meaningful investigation into Richard’s death or of these complaints has ever been undertaken by the department. DIMA has, in fact, commenced a smear campaign against Richard Niyonsaba’s parents and the volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure the safety and integration of these vulnerable and damaged people.

Now it makes sense to me that if you have a group of vulnerable people who are rebuilding their lives in a new country and in an alien culture, that they need intensive care and attention. Those needs contradict the economics of a profit–making venture where the only way to make money on a fixed price contract is to offer minimal service and care.

Apart from putting people’s lives at risk, we now have the obscene situation where church groups and refugee volunteers in Sydney and Newcastle are all performing ACL’s work for free and subsidising their profits. There is objective evidence for these criticisms of ACL. I have not heard a single complaint in areas of Australia where church groups are supervising the reception and resettlement of refugees. Only in Sydney and Newcastle, where ACL has the primary care giving role, have such disasters occurred.

And what of DIMA’s attitude to deportees and detainees? If Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon are anything to go by, then nothing has changed. The department continues to treat them both with contempt. Cornelia Rau has not received one cent of compensation since being discovered in Baxter over a year ago and the government continues to torment Vivian Solon’s life through protracted arbitration.

Whilst there are less people in detention today and Amanda Vanstone pays lip service to the criticisms made of her department, the critical measures that are required to change the department’s sick culture — that is legislative reform and a return to judicial oversight — remain as far away as ever.

Finally I just want to say to all of you again: thank you for inviting me today. You are at the forefront of the fight for justice for asylum seekers and those in detention and I urge you to continue pressing for an independent inquiry into the operation of the DIMA and the Migration Act, and for the urgent return of independent judicial oversight of the department to rein in the excesses of the cowboys in DIMA.

A humane society is judged on the way it treats its most vulnerable members and it is incumbent on all of us to continue the fight until the checks and balances are in place to ensure that they receive the protection they deserve. And I thank you for all the hard work you’ve done.

This article, based on George Newhouse’s notes for his speech to the RAC conference “Unfinished Business: where to now for the refugee policy?” held at the CEPU conference rooms, South Brisbane on 5th March 2006, is reproduced here with his permission.