The biggest news story in recent Australian history involves explosive revelations of systemic maltreatment of young offenders under detention in the Northern Territory. I worked closely with their New South Wales counterparts, Juvenile Justice, for over a decade and can say with confidence that by comparison the Northern Territory are a thousand kilometres to the north and fifty years in the past. But that still doesn’t explain the sheer malevolence of what we are seeing. What we’ve seen is bad enough, but I get the very strong feeling that the NT government are bracing themselves for something much, much worse.
I suspect there is, and maybe always has been, a blind spot in the Australian psyche when it comes to bad stuff that happens in the NT. It was always too isolated, too far removed from the places that mattered, “too Aboriginal” even for the eastern states to care. A harsh country filled with hard men making difficult decisions in unforgiving circumstances has created a tough-minded population who are unsympathetic to the black man’s plight, and unwaveringly hardline in their attitude towards young offenders. A year before the events chronicled in the media, the only news stories coming out of the NT condemned a government that could not control its population of young offenders. A zero-tolerance approach was warranted, and harsh measures were implement to send a strong message.
Well, message received.
A knee-jerk Territorial government gave the public what they apparently wanted: children in spit-hoods and manual restraint chairs — a draconian Corrections regime designed to shift public perception back in favour of a tough-love government that wasn’t scared to make hard calls. By design, overnight, detention facilities became torture chambers. Given carte blanche and the blessing of their political masters, detention centre staff ran amok, brutalising young offenders. The gloves came off and, for the first time since ever, guards had free rein to deal with detainees in the manner which they felt they deserved. I’m speculating about this, of course, but you can read it in their body language: they hate these kids.
As a result, Australia is reeling, recoiling from footage of a skinny young Aboriginal boy, Dylan Voller, being carried into a cell by the neck before being thrown bodily across the room onto a mat. The same boy, grabbed by the neck and forcibly stripped naked by a group of adult male guards. Again, the same boy grabbed by the neck and held down while other adult males forcibly strip him naked. The same boy, kneed to the stomach and slapped open-handed to the ground by an adult male guard. The same boy, held in isolation, threatened with assault by an adult male guard who tries to cover up the surveillance camera. The same boy, doing nothing, tear-gassed in his cell. The same boy, transferred illegally to an adult prison, sitting motionless and head bowed in a spit-hood, strapped to a restraint-chair for hours.
Unsurprisingly, criminal allegations against the guards were heard and summarily dismissed by the same government apparatus that green-lighted their escapades. But that isn’t even the worst part. The most chilling fact is that these abuses weren’t the work of one isolated sadist. These abuses were departmentally sanctioned. They were policy. Rushing into a cell and putting a small boy into a choke hold was policy. The laughter and comments of the guards overheard in the footage attests to the state of their minds — they were loving it. These actions weren’t misdemeanours, fuck-ups or mistakes, they were fundamental breaches of basic human rights.
So who gets to sit on the committee that will define the terms of reference for the big, scary, leave no stone unturned Royal Commission? None other than the Chief Minister for the Northern Territory, Adam Giles, who said in 2010 that if he were Corrections Minister he’d put bad criminals in a big concrete hole, even if it meant violating UN conventions. This man now gets to decide where the Royal Commission looks and where it doesn’t? Adam Giles has about as much credibility as Donald Trump’s hairdresser. Luckily, the time for cover-ups is long since passed, and the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Small comfort for the troubled kid at the centre of it all.
To suggest that this is not a race issue is ignorant at best, deliberately insulting at worst. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is in its infancy over here, but we’re a nation of quick learners. I speak with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people every day, and they are angry. To use a tsunami allegory, we are just at the ‘hey honey, where is all the water going?” stage — when the wave comes, I hope all these bastards drown, because this is not Australia, this is bullshit.