Australia's immigration chief was named as Canberra's next ambassador to Indonesia yesterday, just days before the official release of a scathing report examining his department's role in a series of blunders stemming from the government's tough asylum policies.
Prime Minister John Howard said Immigration Department secretary Bill Farmer had asked to leave to allow a new person to oversee reforms recommended in the report, written by former federal police chief Mick Palmer.
The government commissioned the Palmer report earlier this year to find out how a German-born Australian resident Cornelia Rau spent 10 months behind bars as an illegal immigrant when she should have been receiving treatment for a psychiatric condition. Since then, the government admitted Farmer's department has wrongfully detained another 33 people, including one citizen who was mistakenly deported to the Philippines.
"We do need to make changes and the current secretary of the Department of Immigration [Farmer] indicated to the government a little while ago that he felt that a new person at the head of that department was needed to drive that change," Howard told Channel Nine television.
Howard said Farmer would replace Australia's current ambassador in Jakarta David Richie, subject to the normal approval process.
The prime minister denied Farmer was being unjustly rewarded for a poor performance at immigration, saying he was well qualified for the Jakarta posting. The Palmer report is due to be officially released in Canberra this week but a draft report released by the Queensland state parliament was highly critical of Farmer's department.
It found Rau's treatment was "demonstrably inadequate", the department had failed to provide proper care to a mentally-ill woman who desperately needed help, and had breached its own guidelines on how long immigration detainees should be held in prisons.
"I don't accept the view that the immigration department has become a joke," Howard said."It has clearly made mistakes and I'll be having more to say about that when we comment on the Palmer report. But the Immigration Department does have a difficult job to do."
Australia's immigration policy until recently allowed for the mandatory and unlimited detention of illegal immigrants, including children, and had been widely criticized by rights groups here and abroad.