Black Fury: Royal Commission Compromised From The Start, Say Peak NT Aboriginal Bodies

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There is growing outrage in the Northern Territory this morning at the federal government’s handling of the Royal Commission into the abuse of Aboriginal children in juvenile detention.

Last night, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the terms of inquiry to the commission, and appointed former NT Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian Martin to head the probe.

The move was met with fury from three of the Territory’s most powerful Aboriginal organisations, who released a joint statement describing the Royal Commission as “compromised from the start”, and “utterly rejecting” the appointment of Martin.

The organisations are the Northern and Central Land Councils and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT).

“Prime Minister Turnbull has comprehensively failed us,” said AMSANT Chief Executive John Paterson on behalf of the three organisations.

Malcolm Turnbull announcing the terms of reference of the NT Royal Commission into the abuse of Aboriginal children in juvenile detention.
Malcolm Turnbull announcing the terms of reference of the NT Royal Commission into the abuse of Aboriginal children in juvenile detention.

“Yet again the Commonwealth Government has refused to consult with Aboriginal people, in spite of Mr Turnbull’s commitment, now hollow, to ‘do things with Aboriginal people, not to us’.

“We are hurt and furious because, yet again, we have been ignored – this time on the most important matter of the safety of our children.

“We are also deeply disturbed that NT Chief Minister Adam Giles was party to developing the terms of reference and selecting the Royal Commissioner,” Mr Paterson said.

On Tuesday, Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APONT) wrote to Turnbull, requesting the opportunity to comment on the terms of reference and urging him to ensure that the Royal Commission be led by an “independent” expert and include Aboriginal representation from the NT.

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APONT includes two respected Aboriginal legal aid agencies – Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) and North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). Both are unable to comment on last night’s announcement because they will likely be representing parties before the Commission.

Deputy Chair of AMSANT, Olga Havnen was scathing of the government’s decision to appoint Mr Martin.

“The appointment of Brian Martin does not satisfy any threshold of independence. On the facts and on perception, the appointment is unacceptable,” Ms Havnen said.

“Only a few weeks ago Brian Martin delivered to the NT Government a report about the establishment of a regime to investigate corruption, at the instigation of the now disgraced and former NT Corrections Minister, John Elferink. Mr Martin accepted that commission and was paid for it, so how can Mr Turnbull boast his independence from government?”

NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, appearing on ABC's Lateline program after revelations of abuse of Aboriginal children in NT detention were aired.
NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, appearing on ABC’s Lateline program after revelations of abuse of Aboriginal children in NT detention were aired.

Elferink will almost certainly have to appear before the Commission, having signed off on Mr Martin’s appointment to the corruption inquiry last year.

“There are many other eminent former judges around the country who would qualify as truly independent, but the Prime Minister clearly did not canvas that field,” Ms Havnen said.

“This appointment is wrong for all manner of reasons, and Aboriginal people in the Territory will not have confidence in the appointment of Brian Martin. As Chief Justice, he sat at the apex of the NT’s justice system. He presided over all judicial officers who sentenced young Aboriginal offenders to detention, and he knew them all; he himself sentenced juveniles to detention.

“Worse, although Mr Martin retired as NT Chief Justice in 2010, he was later that same year appointed as an additional judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and he continues to hold that appointment.”

Northern Territory-based lawyer and writer, Bob Gosford has written an excellent summary overnight of Martin’s appointment here.

New Matilda also filed on the issue overnight – Martin was involved in the controversial handing down of light sentences to five white youths who beat an Aboriginal man to death in Alice Spring sin 2009, during a drunken rampage.

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