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Health and legal groups raise concerns about NT Royal Commission processes

*Updated with comments from Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda*

The Government is emphasising its “swift and decisive” action in establishing a Royal Commission into abuse in juvenile justice in the NT – but there are widespread concerns that a lack of proper process will undermine the effectiveness of the Commission.

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT) is one of three peak NT Aboriginal organisations to have expressed bitter disappointment about the terms of reference and composition of the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Government of the NT.

“Prime Minister Turnbull has comprehensively failed us,” AMSANT Chief Executive John Paterson said in a statement issued on behalf of three peak organisations (read full details at the bottom of this post).

“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.”

Other Aboriginal health leaders – see tweets at the bottom of this post – have also expressed disappointment at the lack of proper consultation and engagement in the processes.

No end of reports and recommendations over the years have stressed the importance of Indigenous leadership, whether in addressing over-incarceration or wider Indigenous health concerns.

When governments fail to enact such advice, they are not only failing to address traumatic situations effectively by utilising the expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations, but are exacerbating the traumas that many people experience, especially during weeks like this one which revive many personal memories of trauma.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance said the Turnbull Government had missed “a once in a generation opportunity” to deal with the inherent racism of the Australian legal system towards Indigenous people.

The Alliance also queried whether the appointment of former NT Chief Justice Brian Martin was the right choice as Royal Commissioner given the high rates of incarceration of youth and adults, particularly Indigenous people, in which the judiciary has played a part.

The Prime Minister yesterday announced the Royal Commission will be conducted jointly with the Northern Territory Government and that Martin would investigate:

  • failings in the child protection and youth detention systems of the Government of the Northern Territory;
  • the effectiveness of any oversight mechanisms and safeguards to ensure the treatment of detainees was appropriate;
  • cultural and management issues that may exist within the Northern Territory youth detention system;
  • whether the treatment of detainees breached laws or the detainees’ human rights; and
  • whether more should have been done by the Government of the Northern Territory to take appropriate measures to prevent the reoccurrence of inappropriate treatment.
  • The Royal Commission will also make recommendations about legal, cultural, administrative and management reforms to prevent inappropriate treatment of children and young persons in detention, and what improvements can be made to the child protection system.

The announcement followed calls from more than 100 organisations yesterday for the ToR to examine both specific NT concerns, and to take a wider national focus.

The Government said Royal Commission recommendations and findings were expected to be of use to other jurisdictions when they are considering how their juvenile detention systems can be improved.

Brian Martin has told journalists that racism would be examined as part of his inquiries.  Amnesty figures show that from July 2013 to June 2014, Indigenous young people made up an average of 96 per cent of all young people in detention in the NT (45 out of 47) while comprising around 44 per cent of the population aged between 10 and 17.

Attorney General George Brandis told ABC radio that the Government had consulted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and Warren Mundine, from its Indigenous Advisory Council. However, the extent of these consultations is not clear.

The Attorney General’s comment that the Government didn’t hold “some endless public seminar” to consult Indigenous groups on the Royal Commission’s scope does not suggest an understanding of the critical importance of ensuring Indigenous leadership and representation in all processes related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Gooda later told ABC radio that he had been consulted on the terms of reference of the Royal Commission and had agreed its focus should be on the Northern Territory. He also welcomed that it would examine the underlying causes of overrepresentation of young Aboriginal people in juvenile justice and consider human rights breaches, which could open up scrutiny on racism.

However he said he wasn’t consulted on Martin’s selection as Royal Commissioner, and said the government should have at least consulted with Aboriginal Peak Organisations – Northern Territory.

“…because at the end of the day, our people have got to have confidence in the process. And at the moment what I’m hearing: there’s some lack of confidence in the selection of this person.”

This morning Senator Penny Wong suggested the Royal Commission should be extended to include an Indigenous Commissioner.

It’s not too late for the Government to respond to concerns, and this suggestion would be a good start.

Also, as many have noted, Governments around the country do not need to wait for the Royal Commission findings to take action to improve the outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The Lowitja Institute yesterday issued a statement strongly recommending that governments consider Justice Reinvestment so that resources are more effectively spent on services that help young people avoid contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

“As a society, we must build the pathways to growth, wellbeing and resilience that all children deserve, not allow punishment that destroys,” the statement said.

Weston2Weston

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Statement: 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.

 


Statement: The Lowitja Institute

The Lowitja Institute welcomes the swift action by the Federal Government in announcing a Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention in response to the brutal treatment of children detained in the Northern Territory criminal justice system, aired in the ABC Four Corners program on Monday 25 July.

The disturbing revelations show that immediate action must be taken and we welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement. We expect that it will result in effective and swift reform of the current youth detention system.

We support the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APONT) call for the Royal Commission to have independence from the Northern Territory Government, as well as the appointment of Aboriginal Commissioner/s from the Northern Territory. (APO NT’s letter to the Prime Minister and media release via AMSANT)

At a more systemic level, however, the program serves to highlight the urgent need to consider alternatives to incarceration for young people, in the Northern Territory and elsewhere in Australia.

Alarming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over-representation in Australian prisons, combined with high rates of recidivism, and an annual government expenditure reaching $3 billion, have led many to claim that incarceration—particularly of young people—is a social policy failure that needs to be redressed. Research commissioned by the Lowitja Institute in 2015 showed that, despite the myth of little sympathy for offenders among the general public—a situation that is often exploited by politicians to perpetuate punitive policies—citizens are open to the idea of alternatives to incarceration, and to the provision of better services and programs that address the social, cultural and economic determinants of crime.

Almost ten years ago in 2007, the Little Children are Sacred Report co-authored by Lowitja Institute Chair, Ms Pat Anderson AO, provided a comprehensive overview of the determinants that impact on Aboriginal individuals, families and communities in the Northern Territory.

Increasingly, the evidence points to the limitations of incarceration as a tool for effective justice, and to the strong link between contact with the criminal justice system and poor health and social outcomes for individuals and families.

As Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, the Lowitja Institute strongly encourages governments to consider adopting Justice Reinvestment. Endorsed by past and current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners, Professor Tom Calma and Mr Mick Gooda, Justice Reinvestment is based on evidence that a large proportion of offenders come from a relatively small number of disadvantaged communities (Social Justice and Native Title Report 2014). Justice Reinvestment impels governments and policymakers to realise the benefits of initiatives that address the health and social determinants of incarceration, rather than continue to implement punitive policies that result in more incarceration, particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Imprisonment is expensive: per year, prison beds cost some $100,000 for adults and some $200,000 in youth justice. Rates of incarceration and recidivism, let alone abuses such as illustrated by the Four Corners program demonstrate that these public monies are misdirected. The Lowitja Institute strongly recommends that governments consider Justice Reinvestment so that resources are more effectively spent on services that help young people avoid contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

As a society, we must build the pathways to growth, wellbeing and resilience that all children deserve, not allow punishment that destroys. We are better than that.

Resources

Download this position statement

APO NT’s letter to the Prime Minister and media release via AMSANT

Simpson, P., Guthrie, J., Lovell, M., Walsh, C. & Butler, A. 2014, Views on Alternatives to Imprisonment: A Citizens Jury Approach, The Lowijta Institute, Melbourne

Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse 2007, Little Children are Sacred: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, Northern Territory Government, Darwin

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice and Native Title Report 2014, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney.


Statement: The Australian Lawyers Alliance

The Australian Lawyers Alliance said today that the Turnbull Government had missed a once in a generation opportunity to deal with the inherent racism of the Australian legal system towards Indigenous people.

The Alliance also queried whether the appointment of former Northern Territory (NT) Chief Justice Brian Martin was the right choice at Royal Commissioner given the high rates of incarceration of youth and adults, particularly Indigenous people, in which the judiciary has played a part.

ALA Spokesman Greg Barns said that Mr Turnbull should have heeded widespread community opposition to his view that a Royal Commission into NT youth detention ought to be narrowly focused.

“Youth detention is an outmoded concept and is particularly damaging for Indigenous Australians, as we know.  There are thousands of Indigenous young people who are entrenched in the youth detention system across Australia. The revelations of what is happening in the NT should have resulted in a broad Royal Commission.  The risk now is that mistreatment and abuse in other parts of Australia will continue, out of sight and out of mind of the narrow Royal Commission in the NT”, said Mr Barns.

The ALA also queried the appointment of former NT Chief Justice Brian Martin as Royal Commissioner.

“While Mr Martin has had a distinguished career and no doubt has insight into the NT justice system, it would have been preferable to draw upon the expertise and wisdom of a retired judicial officer without this connection to the NT. Detention of young people in the NT has been sanctioned by the courts there, including by Mr Martin and his colleagues. While we have no doubt as to Mr Martin’s utmost integrity, having a former Chief Justice of the NT Supreme Court as the Commissioner opens the inquiry up to perceptions of a conflict of interest.

“It is advisable to also appoint a prominent expert in youth justice matters and Indigenous elders and experts to work with Mr Martin.  Youth justice is highly specialised and there are a number of eminent practitioners and judicial officers with that experience.  Their input into this Royal Commission is crucial.

“Further, to ensure this commission wins the respect of the Indigenous community and is able to adequately respond to its concerns, engagement of Indigenous elders and experts will be essential,” Mr Barns said.

 

 

 

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Comments 1

  1. Stephen says:

    If Turnbull really wanted to stop the brutal, systemic abuse of these young Aboriginal Australians, and others, he would stop stalling and immediately ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. That would allow independent inspectors to investigate and report on matters of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment across Australia and in Australia’s offshore asylum seeker detention centres.

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