Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Hope vs experience
The announcement of a Royal Commission today was a good thing - probably

My immediate reaction to Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement this morning of a Royal Commission into the mistreatment of children at the Don Dale detention centre, outside Darwin, was that it was clearly a good thing.

I’m always mildly amazed, in the aftermath of announcements by either side of politics, how quickly partisans on the other side find a way to puncture the event. Immediately, cynical motivations are ascribed, shortcomings pinpointed, hypocrisies unearthed. When a good thing is done we should name it as such, and the failure of many to do so strikes me as one of the worst features of our hyperpartisan era.

On the flipside, though: seeing the good in something shouldn’t stop us asking questions, and enough of them to ensure we get the best result possible.

As the day has worn on, and I’ve learned more, I’ve gone back and forth on the value of Turnbull’s decision. Let me take you through the various aspects of this.

Last night’s Four Corners showed us, using images that should disgust anyone, things that are happening to children within institutions overseen by our governments, on the Australian mainland. AAP produced the best summary I’ve seen, and here are three of the seven incidents they list:

A boy, 13, tackled, lifted and hurled across a room (2010) … Same boy, by then 17, hooded, shackled to a “mechanical device” chair and left alone for two hours (2015). Six boys tear-gassed at Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre after one escaped his unlocked isolation cell (2014).

These are horrific acts being perpetrated against children with the supposed purpose of keeping the rest of us safe. That they are being noticed is the most important aspect of today’s events.

In announcing a Royal Commission, Turnbull has guaranteed sustained attention on these acts. That should not be dismissed. A continuing focus was not assured. While some of these images are being seen for the first time, much of the abuse itself has been on the public record for some time now, and repeatedly reported.

This is also the best response to all of those – including me, below – who say not enough is happening. It’s not, but, while this probably shouldn’t be the bar for our political leaders, the truth is that until the prime minister’s announcement it remained eminently possible that very little at all would be done, as has been the case in the past.

The fact that many of these acts were public cuts both ways. It also means that those praising Turnbull for his quick, decisive response – including Turnbull himself, at his press conference today – are really praising him for his quick response to a set of images, rather than the genuinely slow response of his government and the Northern Territory government, and previous federal and territory governments, to the actual known facts. It’s true that Turnbull was probably unaware until now of the various reports into the NT detention system. That is a sad sign of how little significance these events are usually given.

As a nation, this is the most brutal question we must ask ourselves – and not just ourselves – ask our neighbours, ask those we love, ask our leaders: Why are such horrors so easy for us to ignore?

There are the usual excuses of compassion fatigue, added to in these days of media saturation by the fact we hear of every personal tragedy, every international disaster as soon as it happens. But this goes deeper.

Gillian Triggs said that we are developing a culture of detention, in which detaining people, including indefinitely and without trial, has become embedded in our sense of how to deal with social problems. I suspect she’s right. How else to explain our ability to turn away from these events, from the horrific numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated, or from the abuses of people on Nauru, or Manus Island?

Triggs also pointed to another problem:

I’m sorry to say this, but I think there is that sense that the children are out of sight and out of mind in the Northern Territory in these detention centres and that’s an acceptable and necessary thing to do because some children go off the rails.

Out of sight and out of mind. This happens in every country, and has forever. This should not function as an excuse, but as a question: why haven’t we outgrown such childish behaviour? There are forgotten people in this nation, and they are not the middle classes Menzies referred to, but the poor and the uneducated and those who grow up in institutions and, too often, our first peoples. Their problems are easy to ignore for many of us because they are not people we know, and because their problems are not our own.

These are important questions to answer if our nation is ever to reach a state that might be called maturity. But there are more immediate issues at hand.

What else could have been done today? I am not sure, but certainly calls to shut down youth detention centres entirely have some merit. It might have been possible for the prime minister to contact the premiers – as he has been doing in recent days on the question of indefinite detention for terrorists – asking for action on ending the detention of children, at least for anything but violent offences. Gaoling children for theft, really? We know that such detention does little to prevent crime, and much more often ushers children into a life of serious crime. As a friend pointed out to me, this not only creates more criminals, it creates more victims of crime. So what, precisely, is the logic here, other than retribution, or satisfying the demands of populist politics?

It must also be worth revisiting the question of a bill of rights. I haven’t made up my mind on this issue, but the fact that so many questions of nuance and legal protections are left up to individual states and territories obviously impedes the ability of the Commonwealth to drive genuine change in areas like this. A discussion is the minimum we should attempt. Kneejerk opposition should be sidelined.

It should also be asked whether the commission should be extended to the rest of the country. The best case against this is the need to have the commission completed quickly, and for the focus not to drift. Another important point is that the NT has particular conditions, most significantly the fact that more than 95% of incarcerated children are Indigenous. We will have to wait for the precise terms to be announced before judgment is possible. It is certainly true that Turnbull should have found a way to exclude the NT government from any role in setting the terms of the inquiry. NT Chief Minister Adam Giles’ performance at his press conference today was a disgraceful attempt to change the topic of conversation from systemic abuses, over which he has power, to parental failures. This government and previous governments must be examined for their culpability without fear of conflict of interest. The journalists did an excellent job of holding him to account.

On balance I think Turnbull has done the right thing. It is good he did not wait longer. The tough reality, though, is that it will be hard to tell for many years whether the decision has been effective. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody seemed incredibly important at the time. Decades later many practices still contravene its recommendations, with consistently tragic consequences. Inquiries are too often used as ways of delaying political action. I believe Turnbull was acting from the best motivations, and I choose to remain optimistic about the results, recognising, as I do, that this is the triumph of hope over experience. But what other choice is there?


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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