April 05, 2005 | Graham

Rau just the tip of an iceberg

The Four Corners site says “Cornelia Rau’s case has raised uncomfortable questions about how Australia treats people at the social margins such as the mentally ill, prisoners and asylum-seekers.”
Yes it does, but it does much more than that. It questions the assumption that the bureaucracy and the professions are composed of competent and compassionate individuals who always make good judgements and should bring to account the suite of “Nanny state” nostrums being administed to us.
Four Corners devotes its attention to Baxter, because that is where the maximum pressure is on the government and where prejudice says the worst injustice should occur because Baxter is a privately run detention centre.
In fact, Rau went through the publicly run Queensland detention system before she got to Baxter, and was examined by psychiatrists from the Princess Alexandra Hospital – another public institution – who failed to diagnose her problems, and whose professional lives are lived both as public servants and private practitioners. The issue isn’t how staff are paid, but how the system is organised.
And it is not only people in detention who can be trapped in Kafkaesque nightmares. There is a tendency in post 19th century society to institute bureaucratic “solutions” to perceived problems, a process that has not slowed under the Howard Government, despite its philosophical commitment to smaller government.
Some bureaucratic solutions work, but many exacerbate problems. One which has some of the same haulmarks as the Rau case, but affects many more people who are at large, is the apparatus of the child support system. It too involves psychiatrists and social workers and people empowered to act judicially without the competence to act justly. I wonder when it will come in for more attention.

Posted by Graham at 6:20 am | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. I will just use a quote which may or may not be applicable, though I think the former.
    “Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive”:Henry Steele Commager – (1902-1998) Historian and Author.
    Does the above apply to the howard camp? Regards, numbat

    Comment by numbat — April 5, 2005 @ 12:11 pm

  2. More on Mental Health

    The record of inaction from the past on addressing mental health doesn’t inspire confidence and it is possible that the new Senate Inquiry will see the same lack of progress. However, I know the potential is there for it to achieve some good th…

    Comment by Senator Andrew Bartlett — April 5, 2005 @ 3:27 pm

  3. Oh Commager! That brings back memories. I still have a copy of their general history of the US in my bookshelf from American History 1.
    Graham, have you considered the following points:
    1. Rather than representing bureacracy as opposed to the private sector, detention centres have become privatised and are being run by multinational corporations – Wackenhut and now a new mob whose name escapes me. The running of them is kept at arms length by the government which provides plausible deniability of any mistreatment while appearing to be “private” and separate from any Government bureacracy.
    2. These corporations are actively seeking to increase their market share and because of that, are actively encouraging the placement of more prisoners (in the justice system) or more asylum seekers in detention. In other words they are militating against a free and liberal society, not fostering it.

    Comment by helen — April 11, 2005 @ 8:32 am

  4. Helen,
    One of my points is that Rau offers a natural experiment where one can measure the relative effectivenesses of privatised and publicly run state institutions. It appears that it didn’t matter, at least in terms of the ability to diagnose Rau’s mental illness, whether she was in the state run Queensland prison system (where she spent most of her time), or in the privately run Baxter.
    I don’t doubt that most of what you say is true, but then there are countervailing perverse incentives in state run systems as well. The question ought to be not whether the perverse incentives exist, but whether they are worse in one system or another, and whether they are something endemic to ownership of the service provision or to design of the system.

    Comment by Graham Young — April 11, 2005 @ 9:47 am

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