Saturday, April 11, 2009

This woman took on two governments and won, so why is she in debt and fearful of losing her house?

THIS woman may lose this house and be thrust penniless onto the street at any moment because she took on the South Australian and federal governments — and won. Dawn Rowan's 22-year saga is an instructive case of how the law can seem to defy justice. Her last hope now is that the Commonwealth Government, which had her declared bankrupt, will forgive her debt. Her supporters held a 26-hour vigil outside Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner's office from 6.30am yesterday. "For me, every day is torture since it began," Ms Rowan said yesterday. "I did not believe this could happen in Australia."

It began in 1987 with a farrago of lies in the South Australian Parliament, which eventually brought Ms Rowan a $500,000 payout — and may end with her eviction without notice. Along the route came a plethora of court cases and independent investigations that always vindicated her but gradually left her worse off. There was also the strange coincidence of five different government departments all losing the same papers relating to her case.

Ms Rowan, now 63, was a noted anti-domestic violence campaigner in the 1970s and '80s. She ran women's shelters and developed the concept of "the battered wife syndrome". A powerful and forceful personality, she offended important bureaucrats and politicians in South Australia, a Supreme Court judge said.

In 1987, when Ms Rowan was running the Christies Beach women's shelter, a report was released in State Parliament that claimed she sexually and physically harassed women in need, intimidated them, misappropriated funds, used unprofessional, inappropriate and exploitative client-counselling practices, was professionally negligent, used operating costs to augment salaries, failed to co-operate with community services department staff, and persistently overspent.

"They threw everything they could at me, except running a brothel and a stolen car racket. None of it was true, and they knew it," Ms Rowan says.

The case took a decade to come to court, with many procedural challenges on the way. But in 2001, Ms Rowan represented herself in a five-month trial against the SA and federal Governments (plus the ABC and Channel 10 for defamation).

Justice Bruce Debelle found that every accusation was false — and known to be so by then health minister Dr John Cornwall and the main compilers of the report when they published it in Parliament (except the charge of overspending, which was not due to mismanagement). Separate investigations into Ms Rowan by the South Australian police, the Corporate Affairs Department, a Senate select committee and the ombudsman all cleared her, she says.

Justice Debelle found that the accusations were a "shocking libel" motivated, in the case of some defendants, by malice (which removed the defence of parliamentary privilege) and found Dr Cornwall guilty of misfeasance (releasing the report under parliamentary privilege knowing it was false).

All the defendants appealed, and in 2004 three judges upheld the findings except for one key difference: they rejected malice. Then they awarded costs against her for the Commonwealth, ABC and Channel 10. Ms Rowan went back to the Supreme Court to allege bias against the judges but failed.

An application to appeal to the High Court also failed, and the Commonwealth had her declared bankrupt in 2007.

"The Commonwealth has been brutal. They froze my assets in Adelaide, which has been very humiliating, and allow me $500 a week to live on, which means my debt has grown," Ms Rowan says.

Ms Rowan's last hope was an appeal for clemency, which she says sticks in her throat because she is innocent. Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin supported her in a letter to Lindsay Tanner last May, but there has been no reply. Nor did Mr Tanner's office return calls to The Age.

Ms Rowan is now emotionally and physically exhausted. "I'm bloody good when I'm in performance mode, but apart from that I'm in bed with the pillow over my head," she says. But the fear remains that her bed and pillow can be taken at any moment, along with everything else.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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