How much did they know? Australian Minister sacked over juvenile detention 'torture'

By Gavin Fernando of, Liz Burke

WARNING: This story contains graphic content that may upset some readers

The first scalp has been claimed over the shocking mistreatment of children in a Northern Territory detention facility exposed in an ABC report last night.

Chief Minister Adam Giles this afternoon announced he had removed John Elferink as Corrections Minister, installing himself in the role.

Addressing reporters in Darwin, Mr Giles blamed the scandal on a "culture of cover-up" within the territory's juvenile corrections system.

Senior Government figures in the Northern Territory earlier described footage showing the teargassing and torture of children in a Darwin detention facility as shocking, but there's no way some of them could really be shocked.

Video of an Australian teenager strapped into a mechanical restrains chair, wearing a "spit hood", and footage of boys being sprayed with tear gas after spending hours locked in solitary cells were aired in during ABC's Four Corners last night.

These disturbing images and other details of the treatment of children in correctional facilities have prompted a "deeply shocked" Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to quickly call for a Royal Commission into the treatment of children at the Don Dale detention centre in Darwin, where the footage was collected.

NT government figures, Mr Giles and Mr Elferink, have backed the call and expressed their own shock, but not everyone was buying it.

Revelations that tear gas was being used in NT children's correctional facilities were published in a report released by the Territory's children's commissioner last year.

Still image of 17-year-old Dylan Voller, restrained and fitted with a spit hood inside the Youth Detention Centre in Alice Springs. Photo / ABC/Four Corners
Still image of 17-year-old Dylan Voller, restrained and fitted with a spit hood inside the Youth Detention Centre in Alice Springs. Photo / ABC/Four Corners

The head of indigenous advocacy group the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Priscilla Collins, said she had seen the video of a hooded boy shackled to a chair in Don Dale "a few years ago", and that the NT government would have had access to the footage.

She told Sky News her organisation had been calling for action by the NT Government for years, and that there had been several reports presented to government and not acted on.

NT Opposition Leader Michael Gunner appeared to accuse the government of a cover-up, saying they had access all the materials exposed in the Four Corners report.

"The NT Government. They have had full access to all of this. They are the ones we have been arguing with when we called for the Chief Minister to sack the Corrections Minister for a range of failings including this," he said.

Federal Labor MP Linda Burney, the first indigenous woman elected to the lower house, said how much the government knew was the key question.

"I want to know as does everyone else ... did or did they not know this was going on?" she said on ABC radio.

"It is just inconceivable to me that someone that has worked in government that has been head of a government agency, that there was not knowledge of these practices and these instances in the Northern Territory, and that needs to be exposed.

"I do not believe that they did not know."

There have been several calls for the NT government to be thrown out and involved ministers to be sacked.

Indigenous leader and Senator Pat Dodson has called for the NT attorney-general to stand down.

"The person who is responsible for the oversight of these duties and responsibilities, if they've got any honour about them, ought to stand aside voluntarily or they ought to be sat aside by their chief minister," he said.

"These kids have been subject to this torture and mistreatment since 2010 basically, and some of them repeatedly, and you can't allow the people who have been in charge of this ... to remain in charge."

Prominent members of the legal community have called for the NT government to have "as little contact with possible" with the running of the royal commission.

"It needs to be taken out of the hands of the NT government straight away. They are proven to lack capacity, proven to not be honest with the public about the facts," Jared Sharp, a senior lawyer with the North Australia Aboriginal Justice Agency, told AAP.

John Lawrence, a former vice president of the NT Bar Association, called for the commission head and investigators to be brought in from interstate.

"There should be as little contact with anyone associated with the NT government as possible," he added.

Mr Lawrence also believes NT corrections minister and attorney-general John Elferink has been "asleep" on the job, given the territory Children's Commissioner had published a report a year ago raising similar concerns.

"If he has failed to look at the direct best evidence then he's just asleep on the job, derelict, negligent," Mr Lawrence told AAP. "One way or the other he is totally unfit for office."

The involvement of NT authorities has not been the only criticism of the hastily announced Royal Commission.

Mr Turnbull said the royal commission should concentrate on the Done Dale Youth Detention Centre specifically, and would not be expanded at this stage to other centres.

"There may be other matters connected to that to be looked into, but it's very important with inquiries that they have a clear focus," he told ABC radio.

"We will get to the bottom of this swiftly and we will identify the lessons that need to be learned."

The moment Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a Royal Commission into the treatment of children at a Northern Territory juvenile detention centre, refugee advocates responded calling for the commission to be expanded to take in the wider issues of treatment of children in detention, including on Nauru and Manus Island.

Former Australian Greens leader Christine Milne responded saying the Coalition was acting "blind and deaf" to Nauru.

Other high-profile advocates, including Network Ten's Paul Bongiorno and Crikey's Bernard Keane, drew a similar connection between the two issues.

Speaking on ABC's Q & A last night, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, said the conditions were worse than she had seen in asylum-seeker detention centres.

"My response is very likely to be that of so many Australians who will have watched this program - absolute horror at watching the treatment of these children and to know this is done in the name of Australia,

"If one of us were to have been found to have treated our children in this way we would probably be charged with a criminal offence and the children taken away from us," she said.

"It's an extremely distressing piece of footage to look at and I have visited many detention centres, sadly, I have never seen conditions of that kind and I have never seen people treated in that way."


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