Prime Minister Howard considers it unnecessary to apologise personally to Filipino-born Vivian Alvarez Solon for the tragic injustice she suffered while living in Australian as an Australian citizen. Howard simply said “… I wish her well. I thought the apology I had given to date is quite appropriate”. He has further said that he hopes a similar situation does not recur but could not rule it out.
Ms Solon, mother of two, was an innocent victim whose quality of life was tragically stolen from her. In March 2001, she was seriously injured in an accident. Three months later, she was mistakenly identified as an illegal immigrant and deported to the Philippines. There, she was left in a hospice for the terminally ill where despite her suffering she did not receive any form of medical treatment or rehabilitation.
This tragic situation largely occurred through the gross incompetence of the Federal Government and its agency, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), responsible for the administration of the Commonwealth’s powers under the Constitution concerning immigration. DIMIA officers failed to identify Ms Solon properly, and detained her under the Migration Act. In 2003, DIMIA officers became aware that Ms Solon had been wrongfully deported but took no immediate action to remedy the situation. It was not until mid-November 2005 that she was returned to her adopted homeland.
One of Ms Solon’s legal team, George Newhouse, has pointed out that Ms Solon’s inability to receive assistance by a local legal aid centre was due to immigration licensing restrictions. These restrictions, he said, are one of the most serious but unknown failings of the Migration Act and contributed to her wrongful deportation.
Parallels can be seen in the Cornelia Rau tragedy. Ms Rau was mistakenly detained under the Commonwealth Migration Act by DIMIA for about 10 months from the end of March 2004 to early February 2005 in South Australia’s Baxter Detention Centre. Like Ms Solon, the life of Ms Rau was thrown into total disarray.
In response to these two tragic situations, Prime Minister Howard said that on behalf of the Government he apologised to both Ms Solon and Ms Rau who were the victims of mistakes by DIMIA. Immigration Minister Vanstone also said that for both Ms Rau and Ms Solon, something had gone very wrong in the way the immigration department had dealt with these cases.
Despite such rhetoric, and in accordance with the Westminster System, the Government carries the ultimate responsibility for policy direction and handling of portfolios. DIMIA has the task of primarily carrying out the decisions of the Federal Cabinet led by the Prime Minister.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister is constantly telling Australians that we live in a fair and just society. Where then is his compassion for these women who were “victims of circumstance”? Howard’s sense of fair play has invariably got lost along the way. He seems preoccupied with working on his “personal” agenda including involvement in the Iraq War, not apologising to Indigenous people, unfair treatment of boat people and, more recently, sweeping changes in industrial relations legislation which resulted in one of the largest protest marches in the nation’s history.
Prime Minister Howard needs to be reminded of the nature of Australian citizenship. Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell (1945), as a member of the Chifley Government, introduced the Nationality and Citizenship Act (1948). The Act saw the creation of the notion of Australian citizen. Through this legislation, all Australian citizens, regardless of cultural background, were to enjoy membership of Australian society including all the legal and political responsibilities and privileges accompanying such status.
Prime Minster Howard, however, does not see it as important to fulfill his duties effectively in regard to citizenship. Consequently, as Marcus Enfield, former Federal Court Judge and leader of Ms Solon’s legal team has pointed out, a search of international legal records had failed to uncover another case where a country had illegally deported one of its own citizens.
Shadow Minister for Immigration, Tony Burke, referred to the treatment of Ms Solon as a component of “a turnstile of incompetence” and believed the situation should never have arisen, nor the cover up that followed, as well as the delay in returning Ms Solon to Australia. “The Labor Party”, he said, “hopes that, a higher level of decency is shown to those affected in the 220 cases still before the Commonwealth Ombudsman”. George Newhouse has also said that he was aware of a number of cases at Baxter Detention Centre that are currently being litigated.
National leaders play a vital role in our community and voters are entitled to expect them to formulate and implement policies and practices that encapsulate the needs of all Australian citizens. Prime Minister Howard’s decision concerning Ms Solon shows a lack of integrity, moral ineptness and is further evidence of his autocratic style of leadership. It also raises concerns over the Government’s current handling of immigration.
Where then does the buck stop? Recurrent bureaucratic bungling, lack of accountability, flaws in administrative processes should all point to a continual review of Australian immigration policy and practices. However, how can we expect the future to be brighter for all Australian citizens if the Prime Minister seems to cower in apology and shows arrogance by “hiding” behind immigration department bureaucrats. Judging from the current climate, for those who could face a similar plight to Ms Solon, can we honestly believe a repeat of the tragic circumstances will not occur?