The fallout from the shocking footage of state-sanctioned child abuse in the Northern Territory has been profound, with support flooding in for PM Malcolm Turnbull’s promise of a royal commission into the outrage.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda was reduced to tears when speaking about appalling images of boys being held at a juvenile detention centre, which has been compared to scenes from Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Twenty-five years after Australia’s first royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, Mr Gooda said: “This is a hard day for me, a hard day for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and a hard day for all Australians.”
His comments came as Mr Turnbull set out a speedy timetable for a royal commission into the mistreatment of boys at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin.
The royal commission could begin hearing evidence as soon as September and deliver findings early next year.
But there are already calls for the commission to have broader terms of reference to also take in juvenile detention centres in other states, and for criminal charges to be considered against the officers involved.
The royal commission was called after graphic CCTV footage showing youths being isolated and strapped hooded to mechanical chairs and six boys being tear-gassed at Don Dale in 2014 was aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday night.
A clearly emotional Mr Gooda told reporters it was a “disgrace”.
“Our people have known about things like this,” he said. “We’ve advocated so hard. And to see it laid bare in front of us . . . this must be a wake-up call for everyone in Australia that something’s got to be done about the way we lock our people up in this country and particularly the way we lock our kids up.”
He questioned why three past inquiries into the Don Dale centre had not prevented the abuse.
“The modus of operandi of the Northern Territory government is this — shoot the messenger, discredit the report and demonise these kids,” he said. “So people out on the street think it’s okay for that treatment to occur. Well, I’ll tell you right now, it’s not okay for that to happen to any children in this country, be they Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.”
In a day of fall-out from the revelations;
- Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles stripped his Attorney-General John Elferink of the Corrections portfolio, which covers Don Dale. He has assumed responsibility for the portfolio himself and by-passed cabinet in announcing a new juvenile facility will be built;
- Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Trigg said if laws had been broken then criminal charges should be laid;
- Mr Turnbull said the royal commission would be charged with getting to the bottom of the extent of the abuse and to determine if a culture of cover-up exists at the facility. A “distinguished” Australian would be appointed to the role of commissioner soon and terms of reference announced;
- The government set a cracking pace for the royal commission with a directions hearing to be held next month and evidence to be heard during September, October and November and findings early next year;
- Indigenous and legal groups said the abuse was an international scandal. They welcomed the royal commission, but many called for it to include a state-by-state review of the juvenile justice system.
Ms Trigg fronted a media conference in Sydney with Mr Gooda and National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell. She told the media she was “shocked to the point of speechless” by the CCTV footage.
“We at the Human Rights Commission have a long history of responding to questions of juvenile detention,” she said. “We have indicated, as have many others in the community both children’s commissioners, human rights bodies and the media, journalists in the Northern Territory, we have been reporting on this question of Indigenous incarceration, particularly of juveniles, for many, many years.
“We have had many, many reports that have outlined the disproportionate effect on Indigenous children and also on the appalling conditions in which they are held. “But with this CCTV footage yesterday we must come to terms with a failure to address a problem that we’ve all understood has existed for a long time.”
Ms Trigg said the international human rights community “was alert to the concerns for Indigenous Australians”.
“We’ve been a good international citizen but in the last 15 years or so we’ve seen a decline in our commitment to the rule of law and to human rights in Australia,” she said.
Asked if criminal charges should be laid she said; “If you or I were to treat our children that way we would be prosecuted criminally. These children are in a relationship with the State that is essentially a parental relationship. A strong duty of care is in place with the children the State chooses to incarcerate.
“Where there has been a failure in relation to those children, the full force of the law should apply. I have to say that carefully, because all I have seen is that footage.”
Ms Mitchell, who has visited Don Dale, said the ageing centre was originally designed as an adult maximum security prison. Conditions for those held inside it were poor.
She questioned whether it should be closed down.
“There are cultural issues in that facility and in the juvenile justice system which means there is a pervasive sense of violence and aggression and use of force routinely and isolation used routinely,” she said. “This all creates a powder keg in there.”
Mr Turnbull announced the royal commission after contacting NT chief minister Giles, Attorney-General George Brandis, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion.
In Townsville, Mr Turnbull told reporters; “We’re determined to get to the bottom of this”.
Mr Scullion said any allegations prison staff have acted inappropriately should be investigated by the relevant authorities and appropriate action taken.
He said an inquiry needed to establish why two investigations into the incidents alleged to have occurred at Don Dale in 2014 had failed to uncover the evidence presented to Four Corners.
Reaction to the royal commission was swift.
The Aboriginal Family Law Service in WA called for a royal commission with broad terms of reference.
“We believe this is not an issue specific to Don Dale Detention Centre or even the Northern Territory,” it said. “There have already been three inquiries into Don Dale, suggesting something more extensive is required.
“It is our experience that similar violence is perpetrated on Aboriginal people in many situations – in their homes, in institutional care, in the general community. “This violence is embedded in the way Aboriginal children are treated in school, while playing sport or on the street.
“Simply put, racism exists in our society and is a vital consideration in the exploration of the Australian youth justice system.”
The Youth Affairs Network of Queensland called for the royal commission to be expanded to include that State.
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NAACHO) said the royal commission should be the starting point for a wider inquiry looking at the effect of detention on mental health and also the suicide rate of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance also supported broader terms of reference.
New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council chairman Roy Ah-See said the vision of youths being humiliated, tear-gassed and restrained was horrific.
He said young Aboriginal people were over-represented in detention facilities, accounting for half of those in detention nationally.
“Given the shameful over-representation of young Aboriginal people in detention throughout Australia, the Federal Government must consider broadening its investigations to other States and Territories,” he said.
“Aboriginal families need reassurances that people’s basic human rights are being respected in juvenile justice centres in the Northern Territory, New South Wales and other States and Territories.
“Unfortunately, Aboriginal people have little faith in the justice system given the inability of governments to tackle increasing imprisonment rates in the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“It’s time for governments to work with Aboriginal communities and organisations on alternatives to detention based on education, training, parole support, rehabilitation and community-driven approaches.”
The Law Council of Australia said the goings-on at Don Dale were a “national crisis”. It said it had called on the NT Government last year to stop the abuse of children in detention.
A report by NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne had made recommendations on youth detention in the Territory which have still not been implemented.
“Don Dale Youth Detention Centre should have been shut down when the Children’s Commissioner’s report was first handed down, and it must be immediately shut down now,” Law Council director Arthur Moses said.
Mr Moses said nationally, Indigenous youths are over 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous youths. In the NT, 98 per cent of youth detainees are Indigenous.
The NT imprisons its population at three times the rate of any other jurisdiction.
“The royal commission should examine why alternative methods of rehabilitating young Indigenous offenders are not being implemented rather than just locking these young people up,” Mr Moses said.
Labor Senator Pat Dodson told ABC radio a royal commission could only do so much.
“If there’s no desire in the NT Government to rectify the laws that lead to these draconian situations, then it’s not going to do much,” he said.
Federal Liberal frontbencher Ken Wyatt said he was so outraged and stunned by the images he immediately texted Mr Turnbull.
Federal Labor MP Linda Burney said she wanted to know if the NT government knew what was going on at Don Dale.
Aboriginal Legal Service of WA chief executive Dennis Eggington said the CCTV images aired on Four Corners were a “wake up call”.
“Like the NT, Western Australia has its own horror stories of the treatment of Aboriginal people,” he said.
“We’re currently looking into complaints of young people being assaulted by police, dumped on town outskirts by police, being punched by police and having guns pointed at the heads with threats to shoot.”
He said he hoped the new royal commission called for a treaty to bring peace to ongoing conflict.
April 15 this year marked 25 years since the long-running royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed over its final report.
The Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became notorious for human rights violations by US Army and CIA officers against detainees during the war in March that began in 2003. It became known as one of the world’s most notorious prisons.