It was the quickest Royal Commission ever launched in Australia. On Tuesday, after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s investigative Four Corners programme aired a story on abuse of inmates in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory, an “appalled” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a
Royal Commision to investigate the matter.
The abuse of teenage boys, many of them Aboriginal, at the Don Dale detention center in the Northern Territory has been compared with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Boys were teargassed, threatened with dogs, stripped naked, beaten, hosed down and, most memorable of all, one was hooded and tied to a chair for two hours. This footage, much of it CCTV but also footage guards had taken themselves (with one declaring he was going to “pulverize the little fucker” speaking of a 15-year-old boy), was taken in mid-2014 and known to authorities.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles has sacked Northern Territory Corrections Minister John Elferink and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion is also in trouble, especially since he missed the heavily advertised Four Corners episode, saying it hadn’t “piqued his interest.” He only learned of it when Turnbull personally called him to advise he return home from dinner out to watch it.
The news has since gone around the world and more is coming to light on the complicity of those in charge in the Northern Territory, and of Giles enthusiasm for authority and law and order. In 2010 he said he would – if he were Corrections Commissioner – put criminals into a “big concrete hole.”
An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald read, “Let’s not pretend that politicians, public servants and many Northern Territorians did not know that illegal abuse of children was occurring in detention centers. It’s just that too few people cared enough to stop it.”
Brewing for some time
And this is the problem: the fastest Royal Commission ever announced in Australia has been brewing for some time.
Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Professor Gillian Triggs told DW in a phone interview that many had reported this type of behavior before to authorities in the Northern Territory (something lawyers interviewed during the programme also confirm). “That CCTV camera footage has been available to previous inquiries but not publicly. Once that footage is available it really does touch a nerve.. it really shows the power of media and the power of a photograph,” she said.
Yet how does such a thing happen to begin with? Why do guards believe they can teargas teenagers, beat them and then lie?
“I think it’s the culmination of circumstances really,” she said. “This is a government that favors law and order, building prisons and imprisoning more and more people…These things become inevitable. For the last 10 years or so there has been a high tolerance of mandatory
detention of children and their families (asylum seekers) which is Illegal in international law… (It) has created a culture where we have come to accept that you can hold people including children without proper legal intervention or supervision by courts and that has flowed over.”
The law and order culture of the Northern Territory, which she says is of “huge political capital,” is something others have remarked on. John Paterson of AMSANT, the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory, told DW, that “Every time there is a Territory election they immediately promise to be tough on people who break the law.”
His organization has recommended non-punitive measures for juvenile offenders, many of whom come from difficult backgrounds. “It’s fallen on deaf ears and we’re experiencing and witnessing a situation that could have been avoided if governments had listened.” He too believes that the treatment meted out at Don Dale “would have had the support, the endorsement… the approval from government at a very, very senior level.”
The speedy announcement of the Royal Commission has been very welcome, however. “We congratulate and welcome the prime minister’s urgent response. We want him however to work with us and not to us. He needs to honor his words and engage effectively with the aboriginal leadership.. We want the enquiry to be much broader than the Don Dale facility,” said Paterson. At this point the commission is apparently limited to two juvenile facilities in the Territory, but many have called for it to be extended nation-wide.
Kate Wild is the ABC’s National Reporter in the Territory, and has covered juveniles in detention for two years. “The political rhetoric around juvenile offending in the last three years… certainly has ramped up enormously.” But she also said the mood right now in communities was one of “shocked elation when Turnbull called a Royal Commission so quickly… there’s a lot of anger because Adam Giles has tried unsuccessfully to claim that he and his government knew nothing about it.. Finally a voice has been given to these issues.”
This voice has already forced change and angered an Australian public often tired of hearing about the far away abuses in
off-shore detention centers for asylum seekers. In a letter released by his lawyer, Dylan Voller, the teenager who was wrapped in a ‘spit hood’ and tied to a chair spoke of his gratitude for the public’s support “I would just like to thank the whole Australian community for the support you have showed for us boys as well as our families.”