PM Restricts Royal Commission to NT Detention Only
27 July 2016 at 12:17 pm
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has revealed that a royal commission into youth detention abuse, following the damning ABC Four Corners report, will be limited to the Northern Territory, warning that a broader inquiry could take too long.
Despite calls for the investigation to be wider, the prime minister said royal commissions were most effective when their terms of reference are clear and focused.
“Royal commissions with sweeping terms of reference that go on for years and years often lose their way,” Turnbull said on Wednesday.
“The royal commission will be focussed on the youth detention system in the Northern Territory. It will be focused on both mistreatment of juveniles in that system, failings in the system, and also how it was that these failings were not brought to light earlier or, if they were brought to light, why action was not taken.”
Turnbull announced on Tuesday that a royal commission would be held in conjunction with the NT government in response to the ABC report.
The ABC program likened the juvenile detention system to Guantanamo Bay, which is controlled by the US, showing footage of a 17-year-old strapped into a mechanical restraint chair in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale detention facility, along with a series of other videos, showing the repeated stripping, assault and mistreatment of him and other boys including the use of tear gas.
“Like all Australians I was shocked and disgusted by [the] Four Corners program,” NT chief minister Adam Giles said in a statement released Monday night after the program aired.
“We want to know how this came about, we want to know what lessons can be learned from it,” Turnbull told ABC Radio.
“This is a shocking state of affairs and we will move quickly to establish what happened.”
The prime minister said the terms of reference for the royal commission would be considered by the federal cabinet on Thursday.
“Over the years, I’ve been involved in royal commissions as a lawyer, in particular in the past, and I can say to you that these inquiries are most effective when the terms of reference are clearly defined and they get in, make a thorough inquiry and make a report,” he said.
“Royal commissions that go on for years and years and years in my experience are disappointing so what we’re going to do – this will be clearly focused on the Northern Territory, will be focused on the failings of the youth detention system there.
“My aim is to have a directions hearing in August, hearings over the next few months and with a report to governments early in the new year.
“They can be very useful inquiries because they do have the ability to compel witnesses in the production of documents but they need to operate within a clear and precise frame of reference and a timeframe as well.”
Shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus said despite the restriction of the royal commission to the Northern Territory, its terms of reference should be broad.
“What we would want to see is that the government considers not merely the individual detention centre, the Don Dale Centre, but much wider issues than that, going to the whole of the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory,” Dreyfus said.
“I think all Australians would be shocked by the abuse that was revealed. Clearly it has to be investigated. The one thing that I would say is we need to make sure that the commencement of a royal commission does not act as some sort of barrier or delay to whatever action can be taken straight away.
“So we need assurances that the boys concerned are now safe. We need assurances right now that the abuses revealed on the Four Corners program are not going to be repeated, and cannot be repeated.”
Dreyfus said the royal commission should also look at the Northern Territory Government’s handling of these issues including claims that the (now sacked) corrective services minister John Elferink was or should have been aware of what was going on.
“That goes to the checks and balances that we need in every criminal justice system anywhere in Australia,” he said.
“It should never just be a matter of individual ministerial decision, if it was the case that Mr Elferink knew of these abuses then that is something the royal commission should look into with a view to making recommendations as to what we need in a system to make sure that this kind of abuse does not get covered up, that it does come to light, and that corrective action is taken straight away.”
The Northern Territory will go to the polls at the end of August and John Elferink has already announced he will not be standing for re-election.