Whether the NT Royal Commission into youth detention achieves anything will be measured over decades
The report of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory is, first and foremost, a condemnation of this country’s continuing failure to care for, or about, its Indigenous population.
Of the 1020 children and young people in out-of-home care in the NT, 89 per cent are Aboriginal [$].
Of the more than 20,000 notifications received by the Territory’s families department, 78 per cent involved Indigenous children and young people.
That the state of detention in the NT is awful will not surprise anyone who saw the images of Dylan Voller in a restraint chair, wearing a spit hood.
The commission has made many recommendations, including the closure of the Don Dale detention centre. Also included: a ban on the use of tear gas or force against children, and a new rule preventing children under 14 from being detained for anything other than serious crimes.
That such recommendations have had to be made is damning enough.
The handing down of the report today, and the focus on its findings and recommendations, also tells you something about politics, which is that perseverance can cover a multitude of sins. Remember the clumsy way the commission was announced? The prime minister acted quickly, but shortly after that the original commissioner had to stand down. There was understandable controversy over the fact that no Indigenous representative had been appointed. The federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said that until the broadcast of a Four Corners episode outlining the problems, allegations of abuse in the NT detention system had not piqued his interest.
But by now, it matters only that Malcolm Turnbull did announce the commission in the first place. The government recognised its mistakes, addressed them, and moved on.
The next stage, though, is the most crucial.
A few months before Turnbull announced his Royal Commission, an important date rolled around: the 25-year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That commission made 339 recommendations. In the quarter-century since, Indigenous incarceration rates have risen, and many argue that important recommendations remain ignored. There is evidence death rates have declined; nevertheless, 340 Indigenous people have died in custody since the final report was delivered. Indigenous leader, now Labor senator, Pat Dodson said last year that while some improvements had been made, “by and large the problems the royal commission was set up to examine and advise governments on, have become worse … Accepting the status quo permits the criminal justice system to continue to suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions.”
The NT Royal Commission has made more than 230 recommendations. Ordering the inquiry was an important step for which Turnbull deserves credit. But he should be judged, too, on how many of those recommendations are put into place.
Even then, we won’t know for many years whether anything was achieved other than a brief bloom of awareness. Many of us learned what “spit hoods” were. The Don Dale centre will, surely, now be closed, and that is a tangible effect. But the fate of coming generations of children in the Territory, and particularly Indigenous children, will have to be measured over decades.
That is a grim realisation; by the time we know whether significant good has been done it may be too late for an entire generation. But it is also a necessary corrective to our general approach to politics. We follow the daily developments in scandals; check monthly movements in property prices, unemployment figures and consumer sentiment; and ask whether petrol has become cheaper. But the true impact of genuinely significant political acts takes years to show up. We often forget this these days: that a certain amount of faith is required, both on the part of politicians – that doing good is its own reward – and on the part of voters, in believing that politicians are still capable of thinking that way. In announcing the commission, Turnbull delivered a small reminder of that faith. Let’s hope, for the sake of children in the Northern Territory, and for the sake of Indigenous Australians, that he takes the next step.
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