Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A Ray of Sunlight at Last: Youth Detention in the NT

Youth Detention in the NT


Following last night’s ABC Four Corners Program which exposed to wider public view the outrageous treatment of juvenile detainees by NT Corrections staff, the Prime Minister has this morning announced a joint Royal Commission will be established by the Commonwealth and the NT Governments.

The report follows a review of youth detention arrangements in the NT undertaken by Michael Vita, a NSW public servant with a background in the management of prisons and youth detention facilities.  A link to Mr Vita’s review, dated January 2015, is here. Bob Gosford’s summarised the Review neatly in his blog the Northern Myth. A subsequent blog post by John Lawrence SC provided a scathing assessment of the NT youth justice system following the release of a later report initiated by the then NT Children’s Commissioner,  Dr Howard Bath, and finalised by his successor Ms Colleen Gwynne.

The Vita report notes that 96 percent of youth inmates in the NT are Aboriginal. Both reports pointed to systemic problems in the NT Youth Detention system, and while the NT Government went through the motions of ‘accepting’ the recommendations (except for one in the Gwynne Report), it seems clear that neither report managed to get to the bottom of what had been going on in the NT’s youth detention facilities. The Prime Minster in his comments this morning suggested that the Royal Commission would be asked to explore why this was so.

I don’t propose to reprise the most recent revelations, nor attempt to summarise the two formal reports. Rather, I want to focus on some of the issues for the public policy process raised by what has been revealed.

Increasingly, it seems clear that Governments can stare down critical reports and routinely adopt the view that they should just weather the storm of adverse criticism. Thus, notwithstanding the highly adverse comments on the performance of the Corrective Services administration in the NT in both reports, the Minister was not held accountable, and nor was the Commissioner (although he did resign in 2015 over another matter). 

We already know that there are systemic issues within the NT corrections system, and we have a good idea of the sorts of issues which need to be addressed to fix the system. What we don’t know is how it is that the public were misled by the NT Minister in 2014 and later when he praised the actions of the officers involved, who was responsible for the provision of the misleading information which was released and how it is that the responsible minister was not held to account, nor the Commissioner at the time (who was actually present at the event which was the main source of the ABC story).

In other words, while the details of the treatment and the operational shortfalls at the detention facilities are important, we already know (since it is plain to see courtesy of the video footage) that procedures are flawed and not followed, that the culture is flawed, and that human rights of NT citizens were cavalierly breached. The key issues at stake here go beyond those issues to matters of accountability and transparency in the implementation of public policy.

It will be important that the terms of reference for the proposed Royal Commission are broad enough to examine those broader questions.

It is worth considering why it is that it took the publication of video footage to ignite public outrage, when most of the salient information was already in the public domain. What does this say about the effectiveness of our current oversight institutions, and what does it say about the effectiveness of our parliamentary oversight mechanisms. My own conclusion is that both sets of institutions are woefully inadequate for dealing with the complexity of modern societies.

The ABC’s role in exposing the issues in play in the NT deserves widespread commendation, as do the lawyers and whistle-blowers who played a role. As a nation, we do ourselves a major disservice when we allow constraints on our media and potential whistle-blowers to be established and strengthened.

The Prime Minister is to be commended for acting swiftly. The next test of his mettle will be the adequacy of the terms of reference for the Royal Commission, and the calibre of the Royal Commissioner appointed.

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