The Northern Territory Royal Commission: Will it make a difference?


The ABC’s Four Corners recent coverage of the brutalization of children behind bars in the Northern Territory has sparked widespread outrage and calls for an investigation into the juvenile justice system. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced that there will be a Royal Commission into the abuse of juvenile detainees in the Northern Territory corrections system, centering on the events at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin. This inquiry will investigate whether there has been a culture of abuse fostered within the juvenile justice system, and whether this has been made possible through a culture of covering up.

Royal Commissions are established, at both state and federal levels, by legislation that confers specific investigatory powers upon them.  They are created as a temporary body to conduct a public inquiry and are tasked with providing advice and investigating issues. However, it remains to be seen whether any recommendations made by the Royal Commission will be adopted. Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, delivered the Sir Anthony Mason Lecture in Melbourne on Thursday 4 August and asserted that the government had been ignoring its human rights commitments, in the context of increased national security and counter terrorism concerns since 2001.  She raised the shameful fact that over 300 recommendations from the 1995 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had not been adopted.

The Northern Territory Royal Commission has already been turbulent, with the Government being criticised for rushing the appointment of the Royal Commissioner. Justice Brian Martin was initially announced as the Royal Commissioner. However, this appointment was met with protest as his impartiality was questioned due to his former role in incarcerating juveniles and his professional relationships with individuals who would be the subject of investigation. Further concerns were raised over the lack of consultation with Indigenous groups before appointing members of the commission. Martin has since resigned, and in his place two Royal Commissioners were appointed - Justice Margaret White AO, a former Justice of Queensland’s Supreme Court, and Mick Gooda who is currently the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The current debate concerning the Royal Commission has at this stage failed to highlight and question the over-representation of Indigenous youth in the Northern Territory justice system. Not only are more Indigenous youth sentenced in the Northern Territory than elsewhere in Australia, but an overwhelming number are currently held on remand. This, in part, has been encouraged by shifting policies and laws in the Northern Territory, including the extension of police powers. Hopefully, the newly established Royal Commission will identify the underlying causes of increased youth incarceration and the overrepresentation of young Indigenous Australians in custody, as well as investigating the inhumane treatment they experience.  The biggest challenge will be to act on any recommendations and to remedy this shameful situation.


The author, Eleanor Holden, is the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for semester 2, 2016. To read more articles from The Student Voice, click here.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.