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Issue #1742      August 3, 2016

Open letter re youth detention

Dear Prime Minister,

The Australian union movement welcomes today’s announcement of a Royal Commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory. However, having considered the proposed terms of reference, it is clear that more must be done in order to ensure that this is not another redundant report that fails to bring about lasting change.

The confinement of the proposed Royal Commission to only the Northern Territory, the involvement of the Territory government and the development of the Terms of Reference within Cabinet with the exclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and its leaders is unacceptable.

The Royal Commission must be guided by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community with a national remit.

A Commission should also consider the recommendations from a number of existing reports on this issue which have been ignored by Territory and federal governments.

On these points, the union movement is proud to echo the demands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and Shane Duffy, the chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and co-chair of Change the Record.

We have seen Royal Commissions including the Aboriginal Deaths In Custody (1991) Commission, and reports such as Little Children are Sacred (2007), fail to change the way the white Australian justice deals with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Previous reports have served to paper over what has now been revealed to the world as a national disgrace. This Royal Commission must do more to end, and not simply conceal, the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in detention.

The proposed Royal Commission must be different from what has come before, and cannot be the only action taken to address the systemic issue of mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and children in custody.

In relation to the magnitude and appalling nature of the incident at Don Dale, it is also right for the federal government to consider the position of the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister and the entire Northern Territory government.

These elected officials have failed in their duty of care to their constituents. It is right to say that the country has completely lost its trust in these representatives.

In scoping a Royal Commission, there must also be structural change to ensure greater levels of consultation are prioritised with the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander community.

This should include the government keeping its election commitment to establish an Independent Custodial Inspector, a measure that has been called for by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services repeatedly, to no avail.

Finally, this Royal Commission must lead to decisive action to address the myriad of other crises in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Youth suicide is at crisis levels, imprisonment rates continue to climb and community services have been systematically defunded.

Policies such as the Community Development Program, whose discriminatory nature harks back to even darker periods of race relations in this country, must be addressed.

I call on you to demonstrate the intention to govern for all Australians by taking the radical but necessary steps to address the issues exposed this week, and the myriad of other crises that remain hidden.

Yours sincerely,

Dave Oliver
Secretary, Australian Council of Trade Unions

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