The ABC Four Corners report into the abuse of children as young as 10 in the Northern Territory prison system shocked the nation when gut-wrenching footage appeared on TV screens in homes across Australia on Monday night.
Less than 12 hours later, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission into what had occurred, pledging to “get to the bottom” of the issue and painting a picture of a system that had somehow failed to pick up the abuse.
“We want to know why there were inquiries into this centre which did not turn up the evidence and the information that we saw on Four Corners last night,” he said. “There has been a failure of accountability and transparency.”
But they did. Repeatedly. And whether by accident or design, the warnings were repeatedly ignored by the Territory’s leaders, who will now partner with the federal government to investigate.
NT chief minister Adam Giles said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the Four Corners footage, adding today that it was “new to me”.
This surprised the program’s maker, Caro Meldrum-Hanna:
This vision is new to you @adamgiles what?!
— Caro Meldrum-Hanna (@caromeldrum) July 26, 2016
A number of Territory community leaders also dispute the chief minister’s claim.
Former Northern Territory children’s commissioner Dr Howard Bath told ABC Radio National this morning that he showed the footage of children being tear-gassed at Don Dale detention centre to senior department of corrections officers at the time.
He said as far as he knew, there was no additional footage screened on Four Corners last night that Territory bureaucrats and MPs didn’t already know about.
“Most of the material that you saw last night on Four Corners was available to the government,” he said.
Adam Giles stripped prisons and justice minister John Elferink of his responsibilities today, taking charge for the portfolio, declaring “I think there’s been a culture of cover up going on for many a long year”.
Elferink remains in charge of a number of related portfolios, including children and family, mental health and disability services, as well as being attorney-general.
Authorities such as the Northern Territory children’s commissioner, who appeared on Four Corners, have been raising the alarm for years.
Here is the August 2015 report by the commissioner into the 2014 gassing at Don Dale centre.
Among its findings, the report says the extended use of solitary confinement “was inappropriate and did not comply with the Youth Justice Act”.
It found the six youths had been held there between six and 17 days. The maximum under the Act is 72 hours (three days).
It also found that the department’s version of events used to justify the use of tear gas was “inaccurate and misleading”.
Bath’s investigation noted that two children playing cards in their cell were also punished alongside the key perpetrator. They were gassed and transferred to the adult prison – in contravention of the Act – with “spit hoods” on. That footage was seen on Four Corners last night.
The fortnightly national indigenous newspaper, The Koori Mail, carried details of one of the most shocking incidents featured in the program, the tear gassing of six boys in solitary confinement, on the front page of its September 23, 2015 edition under the headline “Children gassed”, just days after Malcolm Turnbull became PM.
Federal indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion said today he didn’t know about what’s been happening. He is a Northern Territory senator.
“I assumed that the Nothern Territory government were taking care of this matter. I didn’t take any further action,” he said.
Scullion summed up the national mood when he added “I cannot understand why apparently so many people knew and yet here we are today. Until there is a Four Corners expose on the matter, we were unable to act in the way that we should have”.
It’s not the first time Dr Bath has tried to raise the alarm. He also wrote a still suppressed 2012 report into the systematic abuse of Dylan Voller, 18, who has been repeatedly institutionalised since age 12. The Northern Territory government has not released the report.
Voller’s treatment include being taped into a “restraint chair” with a spit hood over his head, for two hours. It’s the image that has people comparing the Northern Territory justice system to Guantanamo Bay and the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The chief minister cannot claim to be too shocked by that image. The Giles government legalised the use of mechanical restraints in the Territory earlier this year under the Youth Justice Amendment Bill 2016. As attorney-general, Elferink oversaw the new law’s introduction.
At the time, Giles promised to investigate the Voller incident. Today, he said the footage of Voller strapped in the chair was “news” to him.
Despite the fact that Elferink was a central character in the 4 Corners report, in charge of several key portfolios relating to this whole sorry business, Giles attempted to argue today that no one in his government sought to give him the heads up on the fire storm about to be unleashed. If you believe his version of events, he was sitting there, astounded, in front of the telly on Monday night, like the rest of the nation, despite being the man in charge since March 2013.
The Northern Territory goes to the polls next month.
It’s worth nothing that Elferink denied to Four Corners that he’d seen the teargassing video and the comment by one guard that he would “pulverise the fuckers”. Perhaps he didn’t, but Dr Bath did, and detailed it all in his report. Unless the minister also refused to read the report specifically addressed to him by the commissioner, he had to know what it contained.
In April this year, the combined wisdom of Australia’s seven state and territory-based commissioners was used to develop the report “Human rights standards in youth detention facilities in Australia: the use of restraint, disciplinary regimes and other specified practices”.
This report concludes “there is room to improve in a number of jurisdictions to ensure that all potentially humiliating, invasive or degrading procedures are used proportionately and reasonably with specific attention paid to the individual and unique circumstances of each detained young person”.
Turnbull’s royal commission comes 25 years after the landmark RC into aboriginal deaths in custody that many still point to as proof of how little has been achieved over the past generation.
Perhaps one of the key questions the PM should ask the royal commissioner to answer is how many more times will the alarm have to be raised about the treatment of aboriginal people in custody before somebody listens and acts.
Australians shouldn’t have to wait until it’s seen on national TV.
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