Powers Enough?


The investigation into child abuse as part of the Northern Territory Intervention was given ‘star chamber’ powers on 21 February. This is a novel use of the powers, which have so far been associated with investigations into terrorism and international drug trafficking. In order to extend the powers to the National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Task Force (NIITF), the Australian Crime Commission, which overlooks the NIITF, had to plead its case in front of Australia’s eight police commissioners – including Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty.

Australian Crime Commission chief executive Alastair Milroy told The Australian that "the ACC will utilise coercive powers in a culturally sensitive manner." Milroy said that the laws will be used "to identify offenders and obtain specific intelligence relating to violence, child abuse and related offences of substances abuse and pornography," but claims that this "culturally sensitive coercion" will not be used on victims.

The NIITF has been criticised for not revealing anything new beyond the findings of the Little Children Are Sacred report. It appears the same evidence will soon be extracted again, with the investigation now empowered to use coercion to question individuals and "uncooperative" non-government organisations.

The information gathered will not be able to be used in court, but will be given to police or Family and Community Services to investigate sometime around the end of this year. The NIITF is not scheduled to provide its final report to the ACC until mid 2009. Given the urgency of the "national emergency" it is hard to imagine how these powers will be any more effective than existing ones.

The star chamber powers allow investigators to imprison witnesses and coerce them into answering questions. They bind them to not disclose their participation in the investigation, except to their lawyer. Part of the brief of the NTIIF is to investigate barriers to reporting and "impediments to information sharing." The extension of these powers to the NIITF suggests they may have identified non-government organisations which are not co-operating with the investigation, which is somewhat mystifying given that NGOs are already obliged to report child abuse.

Lucia Danek, a lawyer with the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit (CAAFLU) who looks after victims of family violence, said that it was difficult to see what the powers were for. "I don’t know what they are talking about in terms of NGOs because there’s already mandatory reporting of child abuse. In effect this shouldn’t have to exist because everyone is already under that legislation," she said.

She identified under-resourced police as a major barrier to reporting these types of crimes. "On some communities there aren’t any female police officers. There are not specialised units. Communities call in the CIB and the [sexual assault]unit comes out from Alice Springs," said Danek. Geographical isolation and language barriers compound these impediments.

Payback continues to be a complex issue for women reporting family violence and sexual assault. Sending someone to jail can result in physical violence against the woman and her family from the family of the perpetrator. This may result in the woman having to leave her home community, leaving behind her support networks – resulting in social isolation, children being taken out of school, job loss or loss of benefits, and other major disruptions.

The new NT Domestic Violence Act introduced last year recognises the impact of this dislocation and advises the family court to favour removing the perpetrator from the situation rather than the victim, particularly when they share a Department of Housing home. However the new Act will not come into effect until April this year.

Talking to police can also be terrifying for many victims who associate the uniform with stolen children, violence, and racism. A history of not being listened to can be enough to turn someone away from reporting crimes, not to mention a culture of shame. Police tend to mistake these structural problems for conspiracies against their investigation.

The ACC was set up in 2003 to integrate the approaches to "nationally significant crime." It is cheering to see that family violence and sexual assault are being recognised as crimes in the order of terrorism. This recognition could shift a police culture of despair around the issue and force police to investigate such crimes more thoroughly.

However, the potential for human rights violations are more worrying. Star chamber powers have already been challenged in the High and Federal courts, although these challenges have failed. The Intervention continues to operate on shaky legal ground when it comes to discrimination and human rights.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.