Palmer Report Finds Culture of Denial at DIMIA

A culture of denial and self-justification was at the heart of the Immigration Department's problem, the Palmer inquiry into the Department's handling of the Cornelia Rau case has found.

The closed-door inquiry was ordered by Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone after the discovery of an Australian woman in immigration detention led to calls for a Royal Commission.

Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill Australian woman of German descent, was held in detention for ten months under suspicion she had overstayed a tourist visa, part of which time she spent in a Queensland prison.

The Palmer Report's Findings

In a critical assessment, Mr Palmer largely laid the blame for the Department's shortcomings with its management and structure, citing onerous processes being shunted onto poorly-trained staff and a misplaced emphasis on "qualitative yardsticks rather than quantitative performance."

"The organisational structure and arrangements fail to deliver the outcomes required by the Government in a way that is firm but fair and respects human dignity," he observed.

Mr Palmer said the lack of comprehensive case management allowed Ms Rau to fall through the gaps and negatively impacted on the quality of care she received.

Despite being hampered by poor instructions and heavy workloads, some DIMIA staff, especially at the Baxter immigration detention centre, were highly committed and trying to operate effectively, he said.

But it was "of concern" that DIMIA officers were authorised to use extraordinary powers, which they were "permitted and expected to [exercise] without adequate training, without proper management and oversight, with poor information systems, and no genuine quality assurance and constraint".

Officers responsible for detaining suspected illegal immigrants frequently lacked "even basic investigative and management skills," as was demonstrated in the Vivian Alvarez case.

He said the similarities between the Alvarez case, which occurred in 2001, and the Rau case revealed the systemic nature of the Department's problems.

Mr Palmer was scathing of the Department's closed culture, which enforced "rigid, narrow thinking" that stymied initiative and left the Department unable to cope with change.

He portrayed a culture "that is overly self-protective and defensive, a culture largely unwilling to challenge organisational norms or to engage in genuine self-criticism or analysis."

"Within the DIMIA immigration detention function there is clear evidence of an assumption culture, sometimes bordering on denial, that generally allows matters to go unquestioned when on any examination a number of the assumptions are flawed."

The Department's attitude to privacy was also misplaced, he commented, operating "to limit the range and effectiveness of inquiries into the status and identity of suspected non-citizens in a way that is clearly against the public interest and the intent of the Act." Public exposure of Ms Rau's details could have freed her from detention much earlier.


Mr Palmer's recommendations included better training for staff, minimising the imprisonment of detainees, frequent follow-up reviews into unresolved cases of identity, and better explanation of the reasons for detention and the centres' facilities to detainees. There should also be more scope for independent review of the Department's detention activities.

The Government's Response

At a joint press conference, Prime Minister John Howard and Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said they accepted the "thrust" of the recommendations and findings and were implementing changes.

But Mr Howard defended the Department, saying "whilst I acknowledge, and the Department’s former Secretary acknowledged that errors have been made, they should not have been made particularly in relation to these two women, in the broad scene the Department has plainly made a contribution to the increased level of public acceptance of both higher migration and the administration of the programme."

Other Responses

Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke said that the Palmer inquiry had only been able to scratch the surface of the Department's problems with its limited powers to call evidence.

But he said it exposed the need for thorough-going cultural change in the Department - once again calling on Ms Vanstone to resign.

"If I refer to the Palmer Inquiry where he makes comment as to where the problems are, on page 172 he says "reform must come from the top". What we have the Government deciding to do now is to say that every level other than the top they're willing to look at a change of personnel," he told journalists.

Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev welcomed the report's recommendations, but said its findings were of no surprise to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.

HREOC had made many similar conclusions in its Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention,"A last resort?", particularly regarding mental health of detainees, he said.

He said the Palmer inquiry highlighted the need for the "Last resort" report's recommendations to be implemented, chiefly that Parliament should codify in legislation the minimum standards that should apply to immigration detention standards with respect to children, those that should cover all immigration detainees and those that should incorporate every aspect of departmental interaction with its clients.

15 July, 2005


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