fixing australia human rights sustainable earth sustainable shelter terror australis association member log in
Project SafeCom News and Updates
wwwthis site
Be part of the Action image

Alert a friend button

share widget button
    The Award-winning story that revealed the story of 'Anna' Cornelia Rau, by The Age reporter Andra Jackson

Christine Rau: Dealing with the Aftermath

"At first, I thought the story would be low key [...] The Age was the first media caller. I naively thought they'd be the only one. They first agreed to keep Cornelia's surname quiet and not to specify her illness. But by mid-afternoon, other outlets had already found enough material on the missing persons' website as to scotch any ideas of anonymity. By Saturday morning, her story - and ironically, her identity - was front page news. At our house, all hell had broken loose."

The First AFR 2006 'Woman of Influence'

"Chris Rau is a freelance journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Doctor and was listed on The Australian Financial Review Magazine's annual cultural power list for 2005. Graduating in 1985 from Charles Sturt University Rau majored in print journalism, English, politics and linguistics. She worked on the National Times, Melbourne Herald, The Age and Sun Herald newspapers. Her fields of expertise include law, crime, social justice issues and health and medico-legal issues. The mother of three young children, Rau continues to write from home and is a member of Amnesty International." (from the AFR website)

Related pages:

20 November 2005: Chris Rau: Try follow the money trail... - " thing I keep getting back to, and that all of us should emphasise, is the potential for a public outcry if you follow the money trail. Forget human rights; forget the abuses that are still going on ... people simply don't want to know."

25 October 2005: Chris Rau and her sister's 'illness-mongers' - I'm standing here today with deep disillusionment. I had the misapprehension that I was among idealists; among people who cared for the interests of people who don't have a voice, legally or otherwise. I thought you were all slaving away, with rings under your eyes, doing pro-bono work in your spare time...

5 July 2005: Christine Rau: my sister's 309 days - "Cornelia has had a terrible ordeal and is understandably angry about it. She was locked up in isolation, has said she felt treated like a caged animal, for the crime of mental illness which led her to lie about her identity."

26 March 2005: Indefinite detention, Cornelia Rau and the denial of mental illness - Carmen Lawrence MP: We must ensure that our domestic law fully enshrines the principle that imprisonment should occur only after conviction by a court, not by arbitrary action of government.

27 February 2005 - Life after Cornelia Rau: a People's Inquiry into Detention? - "last Saturday the Mick Palmer Inquiry Call for Submissions appeared in The Weekend Australian. While I think this should be called the "Mickey Mouse Inquiry", it may be a useful vehicle for some people to submit material."

27 February 2005: Talking about Cornelia: the Baxter detainees Statement - A page about Cornelia Rau, who was "lost" inside Australia as 'Anna', classed as an 'illegal immigrant' without any evidence for this by Department of Immigration staff.

10 February 2005 - The Cornelia Rau Inquiry: an emailed Call to Action - Dear all, the Cornelia Rau Affair and the subsequent government inquiry announced by the Minister for Immigration Amanda Vanstone, should serve all Australians with some very serious food for thought. Sent widely through our contact network.

7 February 2005: Finding Anna: when Immigration gets it really, really wrong - Astounding is the word, but I guess the story is familiar by now. 'Anna', or as we know now, Cornelia, an Australian citizen, went missing, and based on the fact that she was disoriented, spoke some German, and could not be identified, she ends up in Baxter's punishment block, after 'having been assigned' to DIMIA, the Department of Immigration, for being an alleged 'illegal immigrant'.

Australian Financial Review
Women of Influence Luncheon

Sydney, May 17, 2006 (The Four Seasons)
Melbourne, May 18, 2006 (Park Hyatt Hotel)
by Chris Rau

Hi; thank you for coming. And thanks to the Financial Review for inviting me.

When the storm started to break around Cornelia last year, we had no inkling of its ferocity.

My parents were away from Sydney. Cornelia was very ill and sedated in Adelaide. I was still absorbing the news she'd been identified in Baxter. So was my husband, John MacDonald, also a journalist. We didn't expect to be fielding media inquiries less than 24 hours later.

At first, I thought the story would be low key. But to show you how quickly the news cycle works, that only lasted a few hours. At lunchtime on Friday, February the 4th, The Age was the first media caller. I naively thought they'd be the only one. They first agreed to keep Cornelia's surname quiet and not to specify her illness. But by mid-afternoon, other outlets had already found enough material on the missing persons' website as to scotch any ideas of anonymity. By Saturday morning, her story - and ironically, her identity - was front page news.

At our house, all hell had broken loose. Both phones rang off the hook and the first uninvited TV crew was on the doorstep before 9am. We didn't know what to do. Our barrister, Robert Cavanagh, said to my parents months later about something else: "You can have some input into the debate or you can sit back and watch it all unfold in the papers."

John and I had no advisers then. We were flummoxed at the torrent of interest in what was to us a very private story. I was reluctant to go on air. I told several TV reporters they could get far more experienced talking heads than me. They all had a similar response: they couldn't leave without some sort of footage, and a comment from the family carried what they called a "moral authority" for viewers.

Experience told us that with this sort of pressure, any choice about whether to comment or not had gone. The only choice was how to comment.

This was a story about systems failures, including missing persons. We couldn't believe there was no national missing persons register. But above that, Cornelia's story struck me from the start as one of terrible neglect, straddling two complex areas: mental health and the way we treat asylum seekers, with her stuck in the middle. She couldn't consent to any coverage; nor could we prevent coverage of her story. But perhaps we could help steer the debate towards some of these broader themes.

Refugee issues had become highly politicised since the so-called "Tampa" election in 2001. This partly explained the immediate national focus on Cornelia's case. Its political sensitivity soon became obvious even to us. Instinct told us to tread warily.

And so I was dragged unwillingly into the world of media commentary, a world I'd only known from the safer side of the notebook. I'm acutely uncomfortable with TV, but ended up on camera that first weekend talking in general terms about Cornelia's case. I was incredulous at how often I was asked: "How do you feel?"; surely one of the most inane questions in a journalist's repertoire. This, along with "Do you want an apology?" - was an invitation to blurt out emotional outrage. Instead, I tried to keep it measured. We weren't even sure what had happened. Our priority was to find out more.

The decision to go on record wasn't taken lightly. It was to throw our lives into turmoil for the next half year. It was a reaction to external events, certainly not a desire to seek out public influence. But it was a decision that inadvertently led to my assuming a role of "accidental influence", if you like. A major reason I agreed was to shield my parents. They would've been the ones under seige if John and I hadn't fronted the cameras.

But today, I'm not here as a family spokesperson. By 'we' I mean John, myself and sometimes our family's legal team. I'll talk about influence later, but first I'll recap.

In March 2004, a bit over two years ago, Cornelia absconded from Manly hospital, where she was being treated for schizophrenia. She'd suffered for six years, but denied her illness and refused voluntary medication. Before then, she'd been a successful Qantas flight attendant. She's my younger sister and was 38 at the time. My parents arrived here from Germany in 1967 on a working visa. In those days, you got automatic residency after five years in the country. Growing up, we spoke English at school and German at home.

By 2004, we'd spent helpless years experiencing other episodes of Cornelia going missing and living a nomadic life, so we reacted with a numb sense of inevitability to this latest disappearance. That was our biggest mistake. Our alarm bells should've rung a lot louder. We didn't officially report her missing till five months later, in early August. Our unease deepened to real fear when we'd heard no word from her in November on her birthday: a day when she'd always be in touch no matter where she was.

We imagined a lot of horrible things.

But the idea never occurred to us she could've been spending her birthday, and 93 other days, in Baxter's Red 1 "behaviour management unit" - a euphemistic term for 20-hour a day solitary confinement. Nor did it occur to the Manly police, who were by then putting out national missing persons alerts. The silence continued over Christmas, worsening our fears.

On Monday, January 31st last year, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ran an article by Andra Jackson about an unnamed, German-speaking, female detainee whose behaviour seemed psychotic; her age estimated at 18. Baxter inmates had raised the alarm with a Melbourne advocacy group, the Asylum Seekers Resources Centre (ASRC). The detainees told the ASRC the woman was obviously ill, weeping for days at a time, screaming, and strongly resisting the guards.

Family friends saw the article, were dubious about the connection, but sent it anyway to my parents, who'd just left Sydney for a holiday. That Thursday, Mum read the article at lunchtime and alerted NSW police. By evening, Cornelia had been identified. By lunchtime on Friday, she was on a plane to Adelaide and taken to Glenside psychiatric hospital, where for the first time in nearly a year she received adequate medical treatment.

I've often wondered about this string of coincidences. What if it hadn't been a Sunday, traditionally a slow newspaper day, when Andra wrote her article?

Would it have got a run? At that time, I'm told, refugee stories were almost impossible to get into the papers. What if my parents' friends hadn't sent them the piece? What if Mum's instincts hadn't been as good? We'll never know.

For Cornelia, the ordeal was ending, but for us, its aftermath was just beginning. That Thursday night we knew only she'd been in Baxter, Australia's largest mainland immigration detention centre, for an unspecified time.

Later of course, along with the rest of the country, we found out she'd been picked up by Queensland police only weeks after her disappearance. She'd given them false identities to avoid going back to hospital. Police had passed her on to the immigration department, DIMIA, as it was then. Now it's become DIMA, but I'll refer to last year's acronym.

Immigration put her in a Brisbane jail for six months while trying to establish who she was. The Migration Act allows this. DIMIA officials visited her only three times there. After five months in prison, she was assessed for six days at Brisbane's Royal Alexandra Hospital, but her illness was misdiagnosed as a behavioural problem.

This was a disaster - it made the guards think she was what they called "bunging it on" instead of seeing she was ill.

In early October 2004, in a worsening psychosis, she was sent to Baxter, where she spent four months.

Overall, she spent 10 months being treated like the worst maximum security criminal, without committing any offence. We think this has had a lasting impact on her condition.

Her case spanned three states, four jurisdictions and became an international scandal - because this time it wasn't "just" some faceless asylum seeker who'd been mistreated.

This time it was an Australian resident, who was white, attractive and had even worked at Qantas, a national icon. A fiction writer wouldn't have dared to invent it.

This is one of the few aspects of her case where I think gender did play a role. Her case resonated more because she was a woman who looked like anyone's sister or daughter. This created a wave of public sympathy, which you didn't usually get then for detention stories and which, politically, was highly embarrassing.

The implicit double standard - that it's OK to indefinitely lock up so-called "illegals"; to deny them humane treatment and medical attention, but that it's not OK to do so to an Australian - I found morally repugnant. Especially given the boast of how egalitarian we are.

Cornelia's case opened my and many other people's eyes to the black holes dotted around the country and in offshore detention centres, where rights enshrined in Australian law don't apply.

This includes the rule of law: that you can't lock someone up without the checks and balances of a court.

As we know now, Cornelia wasn't the first Australian to be wrongfully detained in immigration. But it was the first time such a case received such wide exposure.

By May last year, the Federal Ombudsman was starting to examine more than 220 other cases, the most tragic of which was that of Vivian Alvarez Solon, who wasn't just detained, but also deported. Two as yet undisclosed cases involve people who were detained for between five and seven years.

Unaware of all of this that first Thursday night, we were just overwhelmingly relieved she was alive.

On the Friday morning I rang Pamela Curr of the ASRC to thank her group for helping Cornelia.

During that conversation I got the first of what were to be many disturbing insights into detention conditions. I knew nothing about Baxter and had to go to my atlas to find out where it was.

People warned us last year: "Don't let yourselves be hijacked by other people's agendas," questioning the motives of refugee advocates. This was especially true when I was weighing up a visit to Baxter.

I thought carefully about this but decided to keep an open mind. I didn't know any refugee advocates then.

The ones I met later didn't fit the looney-left stereotype. Quite a few were conservative. They had documents or eyewitness accounts to back up their claims. Yes, they had a human rights agenda, but as far as I could see they had nothing to gain.

It seemed to me that everyone involved with Cornelia's case had an agenda, including the Government.

Some of the official information coming out was misleading at best, for example about the level of medical care available to her in detention.

I knew which agendas I trusted more, and they weren't those of officials whose vested interests lay in minimising their mistakes.

That first Friday morning, the controversy hadn't reached us. After I'd spoken to Pamela, I had to take my older son to Westmead hospital to have a cast put on his finger. It was there in the waiting room that the first of the media calls started.

Suddenly, the never-used mobile was ringing non-stop.

By the time we picked up the younger kids, the ABC told us Cornelia's story would lead that night's bulletin. I suspected we were going to have to brace ourselves.

Five days after Cornelia was identified, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone announced the Palmer inquiry.

That same day, Professor Ray Watterson from the University of Newcastle Legal Centre (UNLC) offered us pro-bono help. The centre specialised in mental health and social justice advocacy. It was a great relief to hear from them. We felt very isolated.

For the first three days of media bombardment we'd just tried to muddle through.

Fed up with this, John and I decided to write our own piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

We wanted to put a balanced reaction on record, unfiltered by other journalists.

Plus we hoped - in vain as it turned out - once we did we'd be left alone!

The article was the first proactive step we took. Just as well we did, because reading it prompted Ray to approach us.

Then and now, we've deliberately distanced ourselves from compensation questions.

That aspect was a future concern for Cornelia, not for us. Our involvement would have tainted the credibility of anything else we said.

What did concern me was to find out as much as possible. Already we'd been getting calls from people who'd seen her during the missing months.

I wanted to expand on that. My professional instincts kicked in, and before Palmer was even announced, I decided to do a journalistic investigation.

A bit about my background: after doing a Communications degree, I worked on metropolitan newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne, starting at the National Times in 1986.

My specialties have been crime, law, social issues and lately medico-legal reporting.

For the past 12 years I've been what British feminist Catherine Hakim calls "adaptive", that is staying mainly at home with young children but keeping my hand in as a freelancer.

This has been for a range of outlets, most recently Australian Doctor magazine, the NHMRC, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

I thought investigating Cornelia's ordeal might help to expose what went on in detention centres. I knew the Government had tried to erect impenetrable barriers around them in the past. It was my way of repaying those who had helped her.

When the UNLC became involved, my fairly informal journalistic work was to become part of a more structured exercise.

The Uni wanted to incorporate what the lawyers called a "parallel investigation" into a formal legal submission for Palmer; also to analyse the Migration Act and detention standards.

The legal centre's support was invaluable, not least for the reassurance of being part of a team.

It's pretty daunting to think that from a little home office you're up against a monolithic bureaucracy.

The support of friends, one female mentor in particular, and then the legal centre was vital for maintaining some sort of emotional equilibrium.

Professionally, I'd withdrawn for while when Cornelia was found, as my youngest, Ross, had still been at home. That week, he'd just started school. I'd been saying to John: "I might ease my way back into work now."

That turned out to be an understatement! 18-hour days weren't uncommon. Being on constant high alert, writing practically every conversation down, became very draining.

Life became surreal because I had to wear conflicting hats.

First, I was still a sister. The distressing nature of some of the research caused anguish which I somehow had to put aside.

This wasn't always possible, and, embarrassingly, I cried a few times on TV while trying to get serious points across.

It was infuriating, because the media emphasis then shifts to the emotion rather than the message.

But it showed that with the best will in the world, we can't be robots.

Second, I was still a mother to three young and bewildered children.

They were upset their mum seemed shackled to the phone and computer.

Someone still had to cook, walk the kilometre to school to pick them up and do their laundry.

I often found myself in the cold and dark hanging up washing at 3am.

Once or twice, school pick-up even clashed with TV deadlines, so I ended up, kids in tow, doing impromptu interviews in the park on the walk home.

Third, I was in the strange position of being not only a journalist and interviewer, but also an interviewee and information source for other journalists. Plus, a media advisor to the UNLC.

Funnily enough, it seemed to work quite well.

A by-product was that we got a few useful, unpublished tips from colleagues.

In this, the many hats helped. As a participant in the story I wasn't seen as a competitor.

I had a few other lucky advantages.

One was timing. For the first time in more than a decade I had a quiet house in school hours and could focus on the investigation.

Familiarity with public figures and the media was a big help.

So was the ability to write.

I was independent, unconstrained by the corporate considerations of any large employer.

New technology was vital. Without broadband, much of the research and correspondence would've moved too slowly for newspaper and legal deadlines.

There was experience of the law. I've sat in more courtrooms and interviewed more lawyers and police than I care to remember. So it wasn't too hard to grapple with the legal aspects of the debate.

Last, having young children was great training. I'm only half-joking.

The practical skills you learn when dealing with the chaos and clamour of kids are often underestimated.

You have to be on high alert, adaptable, attentive to detail, decisive, answer a lot of thorny questions and occasionally you have to bluff! All skills that came in very handy.

But there were also major obstacles.

The first was lack of knowledge. We came cold to migration law and DIMIA and had to learn fast.

We also started with very little information about Cornelia's case and initially rode on the coattails of the rest of the media, who did some terrific investigative work.

A big disadvantage was lack of resources.

I joked to John about the contrast in our positions. There was Amanda Vanstone, announcing the Palmer inquiry in a shiny office in Canberra.

She had clerical staff, consultants, media strategists, IT experts, speechwriters, chauffeurs and cleaners.

Here we were in outer suburbia. John was out most days earning a crust.

Our secretary was a four-year-old who raced to the phone each time it rang and shouted out a generic "ABC!" at media calls.

If I was on the phone, the messages banked up, sometimes dozens at a time. You'd lose another batch of callers while laboriously trying to sift through them.

Housework was out, so hapless TV crews who did end up at our place witnessed a bomb site.

We had a new cat, and one poor cameraman got his tripod stuck in kitty litter that John had absentmindedly dumped in the garden.

There was no time to worry about appearances.

I answered an early doorbell that first weekend to a male TV reporter.

He was perfectly groomed, made-up and manicured, wearing a suit and silk tie.

Meanwhile, I was resplendent in a frayed, 12-year-old dressing gown, hair askew, with my own hands covered in washing-up suds. Hardly a glamorous intro to television!

But seriously, running such an intensive investigation on one wage was hard.

Our phone bills nearly crippled us. Fax and printer ink ran out much too fast.

There was the cost of two trips to South Australia and many more to Newcastle.

Freelance writing helped offset some of the overheads, but it formed only a small fraction of my otherwise unpaid work. When I saw that members of Palmer's team were on more than $2000 a day for working on the same case, I came very close to sending them our bills!

Another hurdle was the lack of access to official information, and not just for us. Even Cornelia's guardian, who was appointed last March, didn't get documents like her medical records out of Brisbane for a long time.

We never knew when the next development might hit.

I dreaded the 6.30 wake-up call from the ABC's AM, with the pressure to hazily pontificate on new information within 15 minutes.

The timing of Palmer's report was particularly fraught, coming in the afternoon close to media deadlines.

To make matters worse, my printer went on strike when it finally did come through. There was barely time to read the main findings, let alone the report itself, before commenting.

In contrast, the Minister had read the report carefully three times before fronting a press gallery as frustrated by the timing as I was.

Another disadvantage was political inexperience. Only blind instinct and caution saved us from too many blunders there.

We had to learn how to think strategically in what at times seemed a contest with the government. Not being very Machiavellian by nature, that took some getting used to.

But all this vastly overemphasises our role. We were bit players in a large cast.

People with far greater public clout called for mental health and detention reform.

They included senior psychiatrists, politicians from all sides, lawyers, refugee advocates, academics, the Federal Court, Cornelia's lawyer, Claire O'Connor, her guardian, John Harley, Vivian Alvarez's family and lawyers and most importantly, Mick Palmer and his team, who delivered such a strong report.

Our contribution has to be put in context of this broader picture.

As for what influence we had, in the sweep of things it's impossible to calculate.

I'd like to think it was a bit, but I couldn't see it as nearly enough to warrant inclusion in the Financial Review's cultural power list, as flattering as this was.

Also, I think it's a bit simplistic to equate influence with power.

Power and its misuse was a major theme of Cornelia's and other wrongful detention cases.

The unchecked power of DIMA bureaucrats to act as judge, jury and jailer while bypassing the rule of law remains the most disturbing element of the Migration Act - that hasn't changed.

Influence is not as immediate as power; it's a far more subtle creature.

I can stand here and try to influence you, but I'm unlikely to change your mind if your views are strongly opposed to mine.

However, the way things are going, if I were Phillip Ruddock in a couple of years time, I might have the power to pick up the phone and have you all locked up for sedition unless you agree.

Influence might still have some clout in a democracy, but nothing quite beats naked power for getting the job done!

In media terms, I did have a voice for a little while. Is that influence? Maybe, but it's limited.

I've since heard two definitions of influence that struck me as apt in the context of how most of us usually feel powerless to change things.

One was: The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

The other was: Anyone who doubts their ability to influence things hasn't lain awake at night in the same room as a mosquito.

Bertrand Russell called influence a component of power. Power, he said, is "the production of intended effects", one of which is "by influence on opinion".

If that's true, then the public outcry following Cornelia's story did help to change things.

Her case started a snowball effect in two directions.

The first was a renewed focus on mental health at Federal and State levels. COAG will report on new strategies next month.

The second was the revelation of so many other bungled immigration cases which led to an overwhelming momentum for change.

The Government promised reforms including better training, record coordination and, most importantly, a greater sensitivity among DIMA officials.

"People, our business" is the new catchcry on official DIMA letterheads. How exactly you're going to measure that on a flow chart, I don't know.

In some areas, reform was measurable. Children came out of detention, most long-term detainees were released and the Ombudsman was given a beefed-up review role.

This progress could be reversed if legislation now before Parliament is passed.

The Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) bill introduced in this month's Budget session excludes many people from asylum.

We might see the absurd situation where Australia's mainland is declared offshore to all boat-people, regardless of their circumstances.

It makes me despair after all the tentative optimism of the past year.

With hindsight, the main thing I did then which might've had some influence was to agree to go public.

The second was to push for the public release of our submission to Palmer.

I wrote six pieces for Fairfax and several more for AAP. I don't know what impact they had, because once you've written a newspaper article you've got little idea what the reader response is. I do know the AAP pieces got a fair amount of pick-up.

But for all that Cornelia's case was media-driven, the news media might have less influence than we think.

For six years I've lived in the western Sydney seat of Greenway, one of the so-called "litmus test" seats, that switched from Labor to the Coalition at the last election.

From what I've seen there, media use in general is a quick morning flick through the Daily Tele and maybe a bit of commercial talkback radio during the day; in the evening, a cursory look at commercial TV news. That's it.

Noone I've met in my area listens to the AM and PM programs on ABC radio. Yet these, along with the broadsheets, are seen by media analysts as the main agenda setters.

This low news awareness doesn't always reflect education. One friend, a part-time Uni lecturer with a Phd, came up to me at the school gate, worried I was so distracted.

She'd completely missed Cornelia's story, which had run at saturation levels for two weeks. Her example was by no means unique.

It reinforced for me how peripheral media influence can be in many people's busy lives. I think a trap many journalists and opinion leaders fall into is to overestimate its reach.

Just look at the dichotomy between the extensive media coverage of the AWB inquiry and the low public interest in the issue.

This is probably true for any speciality, whether it's politics, business, science, the arts ... with the exception maybe of sport!

People might have profound influence in their specialty and even be recognised outside it. But it's easy to forget how ephemeral this is.

It makes me question the cost of sacrificing positive influence in areas where it lasts in order to chase that fleeting beast - the wider audience.

It's not a new question. One of Voltaire's most lasting quotations is what he metaphorically calls the "necessity to cultivate one's own garden".

I interpret that as: 'Don't get so engrossed in the outside world as to neglect family and friends'.

That's especially true for women trying to inhabit both worlds.

We felt direct consequences of my being so consumed last year. My children grew more resentful as the months wore on. So did John. The novelty of TV cameras quickly wore off.

My eight-year-old daughter received a kidnap threat smeared in human faeces.

My ten-year-old son, a guitarist, was writing songs which at any other time would have been centre-stage. Instead, I seemed to be talking to strangers every time he wanted to play me one.

He'd angrily call out: "I know you think I'm boring. You only care about the phone, not about us." He was right; mentally I was elsewhere.

At one point I estimated I'd written at least 140,000 words, including interview transcripts, research notes, submission entries, emails, articles and speeches. I couldn't in all conscience have kept up that kind of pace.

But I will contradict myself a bit to say it's dangerous for a society if we become too ostrich-like about public issues - seeing them as too hard and as someone else's problem.

If we're so laid back we don't care at all about what happens outside our immediate circle, then we risk a malaise of disengagement that allows, maybe even encourages, abuses of executive power.

We are given voices in a democracy, small as they may sometimes seem, and they're still rare in the world. Sometimes we're morally bound to use them.

When the NSW Governor, Professor Marie Bashir, speaks to community groups, she sometimes quotes Margaret Mead, saying: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world ... it is the only thing that ever has."

Briefly getting back to our Palmer submission. We argued about whether or not to release it.

We had an ethical conflict: to what extent did revealing this material invade Cornelia's privacy?

It was awkward, and much like a rape case: to expose the perpetrator you have to show how the victim was degraded.

The government itself was using her privacy as a shield.

We partly overcame the dilemma by writing a less detailed public version than we did for Palmer.

Our investigation shed an alternative light on what had happened, because many people spoke to us who wouldn't speak to Palmer.

Tactically, I felt we had to release it before he wrote his report so his team couldn't ignore our findings.

So we did, in late May.

In mid-July, the government released Palmer's report.

Political commentator Robert Manne wrote: "In the history of the Australian Commonwealth, there has never been a more devastating assessment of the work of a major department of state than the one contained (in Palmer)."

The Prime Minister and Senator Vanstone publicly apologised to Cornelia and to Vivian Alvarez.

Looking back, it seems extraordinary that someone like me, a suburban mum, could find herself in the bizarre position I was in the day after Palmer - sharing airtime on numerous radio stations with the minister of a huge government department.

Whatever your politics, it says a lot for the strength of our democracy that this was possible. It's also an endorsement of Australian public life that the debate, while robust, always remained civilised.

All up, it was a time of tremendous upheaval for us.

But I feel I can reflect on the past year and think, not: "I had influence", but rather: "I did the right thing."

It was right to speak out against what I learnt were grave injustices in an otherwise fair country.

It was right to hope that Cornelia's ordeal, as painful as it was for her and indirectly for us, might bring about change for the better.

But I fear it might be one step forward and two steps back.

I'll remain deeply uneasy about our asylum policies as long as we go on building - at great cost - more distant detention centres like the 800-bed facility on Christmas Island.

I'll remain uneasy as long as we farm out detention centres to unnaccountable private prison contractors - again at great cost - in a model inimical to decent standards of care.

And especially if, for political expediency, we excise the very concept of asylum from the Australian mainland.

For a civilised country to so flagrantly turn its back on decency is a recipe, in the long term, for a corrosion of national ethics.

If you want to be purely pragmatic, a contempt for fair process can also lead to a political backlash.

More voters are starting to share my unease, perhaps not about asylum policies, but certainly about growing injustices in other areas like health, education and industrial relations.

I suspect the very values politicians so stridently tried on Anzac Day to claim as their own - a fair go, freedom, equality and tolerance - will one day come back to haunt Australian governments, should they continue to legislate for the opposite.

And should more cases emerge which make a joke of those values.

Project SafeCom