August 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Rating the ratings agencies: FFF and "Watch out"

CANBERRA OBSERVED Despite bumbling, youth detention inquiry is needed

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Erdogan's political coup will transform Turkey

SEXUAL POLITICS Transgender Olympians: what about the AFL?

EDITORIAL Marriage plebiscite: why not a referendum?

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay lobby grasps at normal and natural

MILITARY HISTORY The Western Front, 1916: our costliest theatre of war

MILITARY HISTORY Delville Wood, 1916: South Africa's Gallipoli

EUTHANASIA Disability hate crime: then the rest is silence

BRITISH POLITICS Tories push trans agenda hard in schools, prisons

TAIWANESE HISTORY AND POLITICS Fractious party puts Tsai in a pickle

MUSIC Davis biopic sadly miles off the mark

CINEMA Bourne again, but still lost: Jason Bourne

BOOK REVIEW An empire built on suffering

BOOK REVIEW Freedom of speech


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Despite bumbling, youth detention inquiry is needed

by News Weekly

News Weekly, August 13, 2016

The first major decision in the new term of the Turnbull Government was made in haste, without consultation and based on a visceral response to an ABC TV program.

Co-royal commissioners

Margaret White and Mick Gooda

The Royal Commission into Juvenile Justice has been almost universally welcomed as a means of getting to the heart of revelations raised on the ABC’s Four Corners of mistreatment including tear gassing, hooding and restraint chairs.

But the calling of the royal commission has reflected badly on the Government, with its selected commissioner having to resign even before he started.

In fact most commentators are concluding that the freshly re-elected Prime Minister has a leadership style that seems to swing between indecision and impetuousness with no suggestion of being able to find a balance between the two.

How is this so?

Few commentators dispute that a judicial inquiry into Aboriginal children in custody in the Northern Territory is warranted following the Four Corners: Australia’s Shame expose shown on Monday, July 25.

Successive Northern Territory Governments (both Country Liberals and Labor) have overseen the justice system without coming to grips with how to deal with the heart of the issue, which is the question of why so many young people are entering the system in the first place.

Mr Turnbull made the announcement at 6.30am on ABC radio ahead of a flight to Townsville the morning after the program was aired.

As The Australian’s Ross Fitzgerald pointed out: “There was no attempt to seek context to the material aired on Four Corners, no interrogation of ministers or officials before coming to a decision, no consideration of alternatives, no meeting with indigenous representatives and not even a proper media conference to make the royal commission announcement. … Turnbull’s hasty decision echoed the instant overreaction to a TV program of Julia Gillard’s panicky suspension of live cattle to Indonesia.”

Or, as The Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey suggested: “A week ago, Malcolm Turnbull was being lauded for moving so swiftly to establish a Royal Commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory. Now he and Attorney-General George Brandis are being labeled dunderplunkens (sic) because the rush to establish the inquiry failed to anticipate or take into account various factors that resulted in the selected commissioner, Brian Martin, resigning on Monday.”

In the end the inquiry will have two commissioners, one of whom is not a lawyer but an Aboriginal activist who tweeted that the Northern Territory Government should be sacked on the night the program was aired.

And according to The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, Four Corners omitted several key facts during the program.

The Four Corners report’s most damning imagery consisted of a youth being strapped into a restraint chair at an Alice Springs detention centre with a bag on his head.

Presenter Sarah Ferguson explicitly suggested the youth was being punished or even tortured: “The image you have just seen isn’t from Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib but Australia in 2015.”

In fact, the boy in the image, Dylan Voller, a strong youth of 17, was not strapped in as punishment but because he’d eaten his mattress and threatened to break his hand and “snap my bone through my skin”, according to Bolt.

The hood was actually a mesh “spit mask” to stop Voller spitting on officers, as he’d done multiple times.

The ABC’s claim that Voller was merely a thief who had only “more recently” been violent was completely false, according to Bolt, who revealed that Voller’s first convictions for assault actually dated back seven years.

Of his more than 50 convictions, 23 were for assault or other attempts to hurt people, including bashing a teenager unconscious.

Moreover, 11 attacks were on police and public servants trying to manage him, so detention staff had reason to fear he would hurt them too, if unrestrained.

In other words, the story was more complicated (and tragic) than the imagery on Four Corners purported.

Nonetheless, a royal commission is indeed the right vehicle to investigate the issues surrounding the incarceration of youths in the Northern Territory.

It will hopefully reveal some of the deeper problems and come up with recommendations on how to deal with teenagers who have often been subjected to horrific upbringings, who suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome and drug and alcohol abuse.

In other words, the detention of these youths is part of a deeper social catastrophe.

Some of their crimes necessitate that the youths be temporarily removed from society, but there must be better ways to rehabilitate them than putting them in institutions like Darwin’s Don Dale Detention Centre.

Unfortunately for Mr Turnbull, what should have been a straightforward response became a clumsy and disorderly display of decision-making.

Hopefully, it will be an aberration, and not the norm.

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