Monday, July 30, 2007

Haneef Case: a failure in compassion - and common sense

I have said little on the case of Dr Haneef, largely because the issue was being well discussed elsewhere and there was little that I could add. Now I feel the need to add a couple of points.

The first was the apparent failure of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and indeed the medical profession more broadly defined to become involved in any way. Dr Haneef was a registrar and, I think, a member of the RACP's specialist training program. If this is true, I would have thought that the College would have a particular interest in the matter.

More broadly, the AMA did release a statement. This was limited and focused on the damage that was being done to our capacity to attract overseas trained doctors. So, and I may be unfair here, it seems to me that the two professional bodies with a direct interest in the matter failed to play any active role.

In saying this, I am not saying that they should have taken Dr Haneef's side in terms of innocence or guilt. I am saying that I think that they should have taken a more active interest in the process being applied.

As I see it, the Haneef case was first and foremost a failure in process. I am not referring just to the evolving fiasco of the charge itself, but to what I see as a more fundamental failure of compassion, common sense and plain good manners.

The matter began well enough in that both officials and ministers emphasised that those being questioned and especially Dr Haneef were entitled to the presumption of innocence. But then things started going off the rails as the media feeding frenzy increased. The presumption of innocence became lost in the noise and the apparent adoption of increasingly partisan positions.

I accept that this was a complex investigation. I accept that the apparent links to the UK bombings created reasonable suspicions that needed to be investigated. But think how much better off we would all have been if the heat had been kept out of the matter.

Consider this. What would have happened if from the beginning Mr Kelty had taken the public more into his confidence, explaining some of the complexities involved? What would have happened if he and relevant minsters had kept emphasising the presumption of innocence, had displayed a degree of humanity? I suspect that a lot of the heat would have gone from the process.

All this could have been done without affecting the investigation. Yet it was not. Take the case of Dr Haneef's flat. Obviously this had to be searched. Yet did it have to be left trashed? Surely with the presumption of innocence, the police also had a responsibility to see it tidied up?

The decision by Minister Andrews to revoke Dr Haneef's visa astonished me at the time. I had to assume that there was a lot more to come. It seems clear that we may never know this. In the meantime, I am left with the impression of a continuing mess.

Note that in all this I have made no comment on Dr Haneef's own position.

My focus is on an Australian process that has further damaged trust in the Government and the system, failed to achieve any tangible outcomes, created tensions between Australian and British authorities and damaged Australia's international reputation. All this could have been avoided with a better focus on process, a little compassion and a dash of old-fashioned manners.

I do not exempt Mr Rudd from this criticism. In his desire to play bib to Mr Howard's bub, he took Labor out of the equation. It would have been perfectly appropriate for him to make a few simple process comments, like the need to preserve the presumption of innocence, without in any way detracting from the need to protect Australia's national interest.

It seems clear that many Australians still support the argument that Mr Howard puts forward. But even the Government's strongest supporters will admit to a degree of discomfort at the though that it might all happen to them.


As I write this, Minister Andrews is releasing some material on the Haneef issue. Note that I was very careful not to comment on the content of the case. I will review the material, but on the media details so far I see no reason to alter my process conclusions.


Lexcen said...

Jim, maybe you should have waited for the latest news on the Haneef case.
My opinion is that the current laws are inadequate in dealing with the threat of terrorism. Don't forget that when our laws were written, there was no concept of terrorism to deal with. Of course, Haneef is innocent under the current laws. But is anyone comfortable with the knowledge that he is possibly or maybe is definitely associated in a conspiracy group. There is guilt by association but this isn't guilt in the eyes of the law. I don't think the law requires the average person to be concerned with it's integrity . Politicians have an obligation to protect us and if this means erring on the side of caution, then how can we hold that against them?

Jim Belshaw said...

Some fair points, Lexcen, although I knew that Mr Andrews was bound to release more material. Hence my focus on process.

A number of issues came up in this case. One was the difference between intelligence and evidence. A second were obvious problems in making the new terrorism laws themselves work.

One issue that emerged here early was the way to compensate, manage people,caught up who were in fact innocent of any crime.

At the end of the day, these things will work if and only if we can be confident that Government will be fair. I have no objection to caution. My complaint, simply, is that the system managed this case very badly, breaching key principles.