MEDIA RELEASE FROM NT
ROYAL COMMISSION COMPROMISED FROM THE START
Three Northern Territory Aboriginal peak organisations say they are bitterly disappointed that the Prime Minister has ignored their request to be consulted about the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into child protection and youth detention in the Northern Territory, and utterly reject his choice of former NT Chief Justice Brian Martin as the Royal Commissioner.
The organisations are the Northern and Central Land Councils and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT).
On Tuesday, a wider group (APO NT – Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory) wrote to Prime Minister Turnbull, seeking an opportunity to comment on the terms of reference and urged him to ensure that the Royal Commission be led by an “independent” expert and include Aboriginal representation from the NT.
That wider group included two Aboriginal legal aid agencies, Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) and North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) which are both unable to comment on today’s announcement of the Royal Commission appointment, because they will likely be representing parties before the Commission.
“Prime Minister Turnbull has comprehensively failed us,” said AMSANT Chief Executive John Paterson on behalf of the three organisations.
“Yet again the Commonwealth Government has refused to consult with Aboriginal people, in spite of Mr Turnbull’s commitment, now hollow, to ‘do things with Aboriginal people, not to us’.
“We are hurt and furious because, yet again, we have been ignored – this time on the most important matter of the safety of our children.
“We are also deeply disturbed that NT Chief Minister Adam Giles was party to developing the terms of reference and selecting the Royal Commissioner,” Mr Paterson said.
The Aboriginal organisations have challenged the statement by the Prime Minister and his Attorney General that the Royal Commission is independent of government.
“The appointment of Brian Martin does not satisfy any threshold of independence. On the facts and on perception, the appointment is unacceptable,” said AMSANT Deputy Chair Olga Havnen.
“Only a few weeks ago Brian Martin delivered to the NT Government a report about the establishment of a regime to investigate corruption, at the instigation of the now disgraced and former NT Corrections Minister, John Elferink. Mr Martin accepted that commission and was paid for it, so how can Mr Turnbull boast his independence from government?
“There are many other eminent former judges around the country who would qualify as truly independent, but the Prime Minister clearly did not canvas that field.
“This appointment is wrong for all manner of reasons, and Aboriginal people in the Territory will not have confidence in the appointment of Brian Martin. As Chief Justice, he sat at the apex of the NT’s justice system. He presided over all judicial officers who sentenced young Aboriginal offenders to detention, and he knew them all; he himself sentenced juveniles to detention.
“Worse, although Mr Martin retired as NT Chief Justice in 2010, he was later that same year appointed as an additional judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and he continues to hold that appointment.
“Finally, we are further upset that the terms of reference are not cast widely enough to include the wider NT youth justice system, rather than a narrow focus on youth detention, and that they do not specify an examination of the huge over-representation of Aboriginal youth in detention.
“Not only does the Northern Territory justice system lock up more juveniles than any other jurisdiction, more than 90 per cent of those detainees are Aboriginal.
“Mr Turnbull has let us down badly,” Ms Havnen said.
Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service, in its capacity as the primary healthcare provider for more than 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members per year in the ACT region, calls on the prime minister for the whole nation, Malcolm Turnbull, to broaden the proposed Royal Commission into Juvenile Justice in the Northern Territory to have a truly national focus.
Winnunga CEO, Julie Tongs, OAM, says that there is a strong link between what is happening in the Northern Territory and what is happening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners in the rest of the country. Ms Tongs cites the case of Aboriginal man, Steven Freeman who died earlier this year in the ACT’s Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) prison.
“He was on remand, he was put in with the general population of sentenced prisoners,” Ms Tongs said. “Within three hours of his arrival at AMC he was so badly bashed that he was taken to Intensive Care at The Canberra Hospital,” she said.
As has been stated in judicial inquiries, and previously reported in The Canberra Times, the CCTV camera covering Mr Freeman’s cell “was turned away from the front of (his) cell before he was viciously bashed behind bars in April”, something lawyers for the (then) injured Mr Freeman described as a “remarkable coincidence”.
The AMC’s Deputy General Manager, Paul Rushton, gave evidence that the CCTV camera controlled by AMC staff, that in its default position monitors an area including Freeman’s cell, was manually turned away prior to Mr Freeman’s bashing.
“After Steven Freeman died in the AMC, the ACT Coroner refused to investigate the original bashing saying he could not see a link between that and Steven’s death,” Ms Tongs said. “So Winnunga strongly believes the Prime Minister is mistaken when he says the Royal Commission must focus only on the NT and that other states and territories should investigate themselves,” she said.
“Given the treatment of Aboriginal prisoners, where our young men and women are going straight from a life-threatening juvenile system to a life-threatening adult system throughout the country, we need a national response, and that national response has to be a broadening of the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference to have a national focus.
We can’t wait, and we can’t rely on the good will of any future government, or worse, the leaking of more of what WA Liberal (federal parliamentarian), Ken Wyatt called Abu Ghraib-like video to make the broader community sit up and take notice,” Ms Tongs said.
The refusal of Attorney-General George Brandis to expand the Northern Territory youth detention Royal Commission to include Tasmania and other jurisdictions has been slammed by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.
Chief Executive Officer Heather Sculthorpe said, “Since George Brandis defunded the Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service, there has been little scrutiny of how our youth are treated at Ashley Detention Centre.
That implicates the Attorney General in the decision making processes that have left our children vulnerable. He should therefore be removed from the decisions about what the Royal Commission will examine and leave it to the Prime Minister to negotiate the terms of reference for the Commission.
It is decisions like those made by George Brandis and Nigel Scullion that need the Royal Commission’s scrutiny. Alternative programs operated by the Aboriginal community should have been funded to avoid the need for detention facilities like Don Dale and Ashley.”
Ms Sculthorpe said the Royal Commission should also examine the processes used by Tasmanian authorities when making funding decisions about Aboriginal programs, “Our complaint about young Tasmanian Aborigines being sent to residential programs in the Northern Territory was met by a public servant claiming our organisation was invited to apply for funds to run a similar program but we declined to do so.
That is factually incorrect. The State Government removed funding from our alternative to detention program: it was their decision, not ours. It is impossible for public scrutiny and transparency to apply when public officials feel free to mislead the public in the ways shown here as well as in the 4 Corners Program.”
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has called for greater Aboriginal involvement in deciding the terms of reference for the agreed national Royal Commission into Juvenile Detention in the Northern Territory.
Chief Executive of the TAC, Heather Sculthorpe, responded to the swift political decision to establish the Royal Commission by calling on the government to expand the enquiry to the youth detention facilities of other States and Territories and to examining the role of all State and Territory authorities when they assume the place of parents to Aboriginal youth.
Ms Sculthorpe said, “The cover-up of wrong doing had started by lunch time today when the Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles held a press conference where he included statements about the unacceptable rate of juvenile offending in the Northern Territory, and the role of Aboriginal parents in causing their children to be damaged offenders at a young age.
Such statements are side-tracking the issue of the very grave failures of State and Territory juvenile detention facilities to serve their role as correctional facilities rather than torture chambers like those designed for international terrorists.
“In Tasmania before Attorney General George Brandis defunded our legal service and gave the funds to Victoria, we had a very active presence at youth detention facilities and operated youth programs and alternative to detention programs which kept most Aboriginal youth out of State detention. We established those programs because the State was failing our young people. This new Royal Commission must be extended to include the treatment of Aboriginal youth in Tasmanian detention. It is totally erroneous to imagine that such abuses happen only in northern Australia,”
Ms Sculthorpe said the defunding of Aboriginal youth programs in Tasmania also needs external scrutiny, “The Hodgman government has shut off funds for our alternative to detention program but is now spending more to send young Aborigines to programs in the Northern Territory, so far removed from their own families and in disregard of the need of young people to form close connections with their own community and culture. The Tasmanian government has effectively blocked us out from participation in planning for better futures of these young Aborigines. A Royal Commission would highlight this failure and make recommendations for a better future”.
“The Federal Government must ensure truly independent examination of the role of the States and Territories in their treatment of young Aborigines and this must exclude any decision making role for those whose failings are under scrutiny. No State or Territory involvement or else there will be no impartial examination of the horrendous accounts which have, and are still, emerging.”
NT GOVERNMENT CAN’T BE TRUSTED TO CARE FOR CHILDREN
One of the major Aboriginal-community controlled organisations in the Barkly says it has lost any confidence in the NT Government’s ability to govern the Territory following the fallout from this week’s 4 Corners program. Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation chairperson Mr Ross Jakamarra Williams said the Giles Government had shown it was not fit to run the Northern Territory.
“The Chief Minister has conducted himself shamefully since the horrific revelations on 4 Corners by refusing to take responsibility, shift the blame and continuing to try and demonise our children,” Mr Williams said.
“This is a Government that has shown itself to be incompetent, inhumane and dysfunctional. We do not trust them to play any sort of role that involves caring for Aboriginal children.
“We call on Prime Minister Turnbull to take responsibility for children who are in detention, in the care of the Government, as we don’t trust the NT Government to not further damage these children.
“We commend the Prime Minister for moving quickly to establish the Royal Commission but ask him to make sure the current NT Government is not involved in setting the scope or Terms of Reference. This would be a complete conflict of interest.”
Mr Jakamarra Williams said AHAC was calling for a new model of providing services to children in the NT’s juvenile justice system.
“The lock them up mindset of the current Government can’t continue.
“We have seen the harm this is causing, it’s hurting our kids and it’s hurting our community. It’s doing nothing to make our communities safer.
“There are better ways of caring for our young people and Aboriginal community controlled organisations must be involved in implementing these.
“There are successful program models that involve young people going bush on country, learning from elders, gaining skills and respect for themselves and others.
“These programs should be supported and dreadful places like Don Dale closed immediately.” July 28, 2016