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Despite the Turnbull Government vowing quick action, we must confront the risk of complacency to force change to the culture of juvenile detention.
On Monday, the team of investigative journalists at the ABC’s Four Corners brought a very real and very disturbing scandal to the fore of Australian politics. Without bowing to the temptations of euphemism that allowed an extraordinary sequence of abuses to go on for so long, they reported on the malpractice of officials running the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.
The program opened not with a monologue, but with the scene of a young boy confined to an isolation cell, forcibly hooded and shackled to a chair by several corrections officers. The journalists knew they had compiled an investigation of undoubtable consequence, and they wanted their audience to be moved from the outset.
The next scene, captured on a CCTV monitoring system owned and operated by the Northern Territory government, showed another boy, traumatised and disoriented with no conception of time, leaving his cell (the guard had neglected to lock the door) and attempting to break out of the block. When the officers appeared in response, the boy screamed, pleading to know for how long he had been confined. The guard would not give a proper answer, but we now know what it was: fifteen days, for twenty-three-and-a-half hours per day.
It is no wonder that the press, following the lead of Four Corners, has jumped to comparisons with the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay facilities. Although they tread the tenuous ground of moral equivalence, the comparisons are not on the whole inaccurate: what we have witnessed is not just the use of torture and excessive force (described in the program by now-sacked Corrections Minister John Elferink as “reasonable force”), but the systematic dehumanisation of detainees for the purpose of amusement; using their phones, the officers personally recorded much of the abuse.
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This is not, as Associate Professor Brian Stout has pointed out, a scandal to be unexpected by anyone who has followed the reports of malpractice in detention facilities (asylum seeker facilities included) over recent years: “ Turnbull is not correct to say that previous enquiries did not turn up evidence of this treatment.” A serious, practical response is necessary and, to be fair, the Prime Minister was immediate in taking the first significant step. The process for the establishment of a Royal Commission into abuse in detention facilities has begun, and that is to the Prime Minister’s credit.
However, there is as always a risk that comes with this great outpouring of anger and frustration. That risk is long-term complacency. By this I mean it is necessary for the press and the general public to maintain a keen focus on this issue and to ensure that our elected representatives feel enough pressure to carry out the implementation of public policy solutions. The specifics of these solutions will be recommended at the conclusion of the Royal Commission, but it can be understood at the outset that these must include expanded monitoring of the practices of each facility and the officers on shift, along with increased (or at least better organised) funding for the maintenance of the facilities to ensure that the detainees are not suffering, and are living in humane conditions. (The conditions at Don Dale were variously described in the Four Corners report as “ghoulish”, “medieval”, overheated, and without proper sanitation.)
Complacency on these matters leads to oversight and a lack of progress. Despite a brief period of similar outrage, laws introduced under the Abbott Government to make it impossible for health professionals to publicly report on abuse in detention facilities have gone unchanged. They are a blight, to be sure, on the reputation of that government. But that is beside the point so long as those laws remain unchanged. A similar problem has lead to the escalation of arguably criminal malpractice in offshore detention facilities. Moreover, the current scandal is itself the result of complacency that has gone on for far too long. Incredibly, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has claimed total ignorance of the abuse of children at the Northern Territory centre; it had apparently not “piqued his interest.” No wonder then that the abuse has gone on without intervention.
It is imperative, therefore, that anger is maintained and solutions continue to be suggested. Otherwise, it becomes possible for successive administrations, both at the state and federal level, to play-down the significance of the problem, as Scullion has done.
If we cannot hold our representatives to account, our democracy is not functioning as it should be.