An urgent royal commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention has kick-started Malcolm Turnbull’s new term as Prime Minister with the decisiveness many believe he has lacked since seizing the top job.
But while his quick response to the ABC Four Corners program’s revelations of the horrific abuse of detained juveniles has been widely welcomed, some inside the Coalition fear it is a return to a “captain’s call” style leadership that will not foster party unity.
On Tuesday morning, Mr Turnbull announced a royal commission to examine the allegations and evidence aired in Monday night’s Four Corners, which included graphic footage of Indigenous children being badly mistreated in Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014.
The vision shows youths being stripped, tear-gassed and otherwise assaulted, sparking immediate outrage across the wider Australian community.
The Prime Minister described the allegations as a “shocking state of affairs” and promised to get to the bottom of what happened in the detention centre.
“Like all Australians, I have been deeply shocked – shocked and appalled – by the images of mistreatment at the Don Dale Centre,” he said.
Mr Turnbull promised the inquiry would expose the culture that allowed such abuse to occur and remain hidden for so long.
Culture of cover-up
NT Chief Minister Adam Giles suggested there was a culture of cover-up within the corrections centre and said the territory would join the federal government in setting up the inquiry.
Mr Giles sacked his corrections minister John Elferink and has taken on the portfolio himself.
The Chief Minister described the footage as horrific.
Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs also welcomed the royal commission and said she was grateful for such swift action from the Prime Minister.
“I think it is an illustration of leadership,” she said.
The Labor opposition has also promised its cooperation with the royal commission.
But while Mr Turnbull’s ministers supported his decisive action, others within the Coalition are not so full of praise.
“This is not good government,” said one backbencher from the conservative right of the party who wished to remain anonymous.
“This is a knee jerk reaction and is very reminiscent of how Labor in government overreacted to the Four Corners program about the live cattle trade.
“I assume this is a captain’s call because it could not have gone before Cabinet. And why are we calling it? It should be left to the Northern Territory government.”
Another conservative MP, who also asked not to be named, said if the allegations were true then an inquiry should be held – but not from a rushed response.
“Why did a decision on a royal commission have to be made within 18 hours of the program airing?” the MP said. “Why not 48 to 72 hours and socialise it a bit.”
“A prudent prime minister would take a more considered and consultative look at the allegations first, get a report from the NT, take it all to Cabinet for discussion before embarking on an instant royal commission.”
A Coalition backbencher who wished to remain anonymous
The MP said: “This tough way does not make for good governance and it doesn’t make for good party unity.
“Yes we want Malcolm to be decisive, but this is an easy way to be decisive. He also has to get the balance right.”
Chris Johnson is a Walkley Award-winning journalist who has spent the past decade working in the Canberra Press Gallery, most recently as the bureau chief for Fairfax Media.