We don’t need a Royal Commission into Don Dale. It’s obvious what’s wrong

Disturbing footage has emerged of a 17-year-old boy, Dylan Voller, who was one of six boys tear gassed at a juvenile detention centre near Darwin, being strapped to a mechanical restraint chair. The appalling treatment that he is suffering in the program is the culmination of nearly a decade of systemic neglect and abuse.


The incident sparked a damning report by the Northern Territory’s then Children’s Commissioner Howard Bath. In response to the report, Colleen Gwynne, the former commissioner for corrections, Ken Middlebook, defended the officers’ actions, saying the report was inaccurate, “shallow” and “one-sided”.

NT Attorney-General and Corrections Minister John Elferink who will stand condemned for his response on the program, has now lost his portfolio and should be facing more serious charges for role in this sorry affair.  he didn’t seem to think it was anything wrong with what was going on in Don Dale.


Senator for Northern Territory and Federal Minister for Community Services Nigel Scullion used a press conference to declare he had not known nor asked about systemic abuse in his home  state’s jurisdiction’s youth detention system – in which some 97 per cent of inmates are indigenous boys.

He was out to dinner when the program was aired and said he wasn’t particularly interested in the plight of indigenous juveniles in Don Dale, “didn’t pique” my interest was his comment.


You can imagine that the Prime Minister must have piqued Scullion this morning

Much of the footage that was shown in the program was of a boy endeavouring to break out of this prison cell using a light fitting. It’s grim viewing and will clearly divide people who watch it.  Some will see an out-of-control juvenile delinquent destroying government property. Others will see a young child driven to extremes by systemic physical abuse.

And this is exactly the problem. What was seen in the 4 Corners program was the end result of a deep-rooted social, cultural and economic problem. The problem of the incarceration of juvenile indigenous children is only one aspect of the appalling treatment that indigenous people have received, particularly in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia in recent years.

Fixing the problems in Don Dale should be an immediate priority. But fixing the problems in Don Dale will not make the wider societal problems facing indigenous people  go away. In the immediate sense, the problem is what you do with repeat juvenile offenders who have been failed by the social and correctional systems of the Northern Territory. These children did not suddenly end up in Don Dale. They are there because the system has failed at every stage.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has forced to set up a Royal Commission into the Don Dale Detention Centre. But is this really necessary? There must be hundreds, in fact thousands of people who know exactly what is going on, and has gone on in this facility. It won’t take a Royal Commission to find out.

“None of this was new at all,” said the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s chief executive, Priscilla Collins, on Tuesday. “Before the children’s commissioner’s report, the Vita report was also done. There’s been two investigations and those investigations have the full transcript of that video footage that everyone saw last night.”

What is needed is some corrective action and it needs corrective action quickly. A Royal Commission will take too long.

The other problem with what Turnbull is proposing is that it will only focus on Don Dale, not on a what is going on in the Northern Territory nor on what happens in other states.

While all this is going is worth remembering that in 2014 the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was Minister for Indigenous Affairs. He also visited the Northern Territory in some highly publicised and televised media events. According to the 4 Corners program, this abuse was going on while Abbott was parading around the Northern Territory proclaiming himself to be the champion of the indigenous people.


  Minister for Indigenous AffairsTony Abbott, champion of indigenous youth, but only the ones that aren’t in jail

I hope he is hanging his head in shame today.




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