There are bigger fish to fry, but Acting Immigration Minister Peter McGauran’s admission yesterday that the Government deported an Australian citizen four years ago – whose present whereabouts are unknown – and has wrongly held an unknown number of other Australians in detention, are truly extraordinary. McGauran describes the first matter as “particularly disturbing”. Too right. His statement from the weekend isn’t yet up on his website, but it’s bound to spark off a whole new range of questions.

The Government has expanded its inquiry into immigration detention centres after discovering the cases. But there’s already significant doubt over whether the current “closed” inquiry into the Rau case is adequate to deal with the issue – or if former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer is appropriate or qualified to head it. The new cases have surfaced after the Government asked Immigration to search its records for other cases of wrongful detention. McGauran refused yesterday to say how many cases there have been – and claimed that some could turn out to be “incorrect data recordings” or refer to five-minute detentions.

Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett says the fact there have been other cases of wrongful detention is “all the more reason” why the Palmer inquiry should be made public. But there’s more to it than that. First, why the timing? Why did this news come out when the leadership exploded? An attempt to bury the story? An attempt to pre-empt a leak? Once again, we’re back in the very familiar “who knew what when” territory that bogs down anyone trying to hold the Howard Government to account.

Second, we now have evidence of systematic incompetence by Immigration – incompetence that may have had catastrophic consequences for the deported citizen overseas. What have Ministers Vanstone and Ruddock done to tackle this? And, yet again, we’re left asking about what happened to a fundamental Liberal value – support for the individual rather than the bureaucracy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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