Not only have Australians been shocked by the cruel behaviour against Indigenous children in the Don Dale juvenile detention centre in the Northern Territory, but also images from the Four Corners program have stunned TV audiences around the world. How could children be subject to such appalling treatment in government institutions? Some 97 percent of those in juvenile detention in the NT are Indigenous.
The Four Corners images were particularly shocking for Indigenous people. In a painful lecture at the University of New South Wales on 29 July, Stan Grant spoke of his “pulsating rage” at the events, and how it recalled how his own family and people had suffered over two centuries. He called for a truth and reconciliation commission that would fully remember the truth about white settlement and its continuing effects, the “endemic child suicide, intractable disadvantage, and choking jail cells” today. What is recognition, he asked, without truth?
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull immediately called a royal commission into the conduct in the Northern Territory. Calls for the terms of reference for the commission to include other States would have extended the timeline for the enquiry, and the Commonwealth Government argued that it needed a speedy result for the NT situation, and that further enquiries could follow in other States as needed.
Two new people have been appointed as co-commissioners to head the royal commission into NT juvenile detention – Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Gooda, and Margaret White, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland. They replaced Brian Martin, who stood down lest there be a perception of a conflict of interest in his role.
Answers needed about systemic abuse
We need answers about why earlier reports about human rights abuses of children in NT juvenile detention were not acted upon by the NT government. Why were prison staff using practices akin to torture, such as children placed in solitary confinement for long periods (without even water, at times, despite the heat), and being strapped to restraint chairs?
The NT children’s commission earlier found that children as young as 14 had been tear-gassed, had hoods placed over their heads, or were kept in solitary confinement without water for up to 72 hours. The commissioner recommended Don Dale be closed. Why was this report ignored?
Why were children as young as ten placed in such a severe and frightening environment? The NT government has now banned the use of the restraint chair, but only for juveniles.
As the visiting US expert, Vincent Shiraldi said at an address at the University of Sydney (The Age 4 August), only high-risk offenders should be detained, and even then in small facilities of no more than a dozen beds, near their homes, with rehabilitation programs and properly trained staff, including social workers for the children and their families. Shiraldi helped reform the juvenile corrections system along these lines in New York and Washington DC. Similar systems in the NT, such as Back-Track, had worked very well.
Wendy O’Brien, lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University, wrote on 29 July that we need to challenge the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric, and focus on rehabilitating young people, providing trauma counselling, education, support programs, and ensuring people have access to their families and culture. She particularly called for the Commonwealth government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, and the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child; this would help prevent abuses.
The shock of the Don Dale exposé has torn from our hearts the delusive complacency that Indigenous Australians have a fair go like others, and that giving them recognition in our Australian Constitution will make a meaningful difference. Certainly, recognition in the Constitution could make a significant symbolic statement of reconciliation in Australia, but it must be coupled with real outcomes in health, education, opportunity, and participation.
The situation is bad not just for many juvenile Indigenous people, but also for many adults. In March 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 28 percent of people in prison are Indigenous, though they make up only 3 percent of the Australian population. The percentage of the prison population that is Indigenous has nearly doubled from 14.4 percent in 1991. An indigenous adult is 15.4 time mores likely to be in prison that a non-indigenous person.
A referendum and/or treaty?
Various Indigenous groups are now calling for a treaty with First Australians, just as most other New World countries, like Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, have treaties with their Indigenous peoples. Noel Pearson, at the Garma festival, called for a synthesis of a treaty with constitutional change. Labor Senator Pat Dodson, who was co-chair of the referendum council before standing for parliament, supported a national settlement.
Pearson said Aboriginal communities also needed to increase their levels of responsibility for the welfare of their children, to prevent them ending up in detention.
Despite opposition even to a constitutional change from Senators Cory Bernardi and James Paterson, the Prime Minister is pushing ahead with efforts to frame a change to the Constitution, in conversation with Mr Shorten, in the hope that the referendum can win overwhelming public support.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has admitted that he should have known about the abuse in the youth detention centres in the NT. However, The Age reported on 4 August that he would consider a treaty with Indigenous Australians if the council for Indigenous recognition recommended it.
Craig Arthur, national coordinator of the National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) said that the situation in NT juvenile detention was well known, and on the front page of the Koori Mail on 23 September 2015. But still abuses continued. Sherry Balcombe, Victorian councillor for NATSICC, said that “The systemic abuse of our children is wrong; our nation is hurting with all the suicides and the ongoing abuse through generational trauma”. She said there were effective alternatives to detention, as demonstrated by the Koori Court in Victoria.
It is well past time that Australia took the reconciliation process forward, recognising the tragic consequences of white settlement on Indigenous peoples, and doing the right thing by their disadvantaged descendants today. The truth will help set all of us free – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – from the injustices and trauma of the past.