Western Australian Labor senator Patrick Dodson has panned the government’s inaction on the incarceration issues facing Indigenous communities, and has whacked Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion for an “appalling demonstration of ignorance”.
The Labor frontbencher’s frustration was made clear at an estimates hearing, which questioned Senator Scullion over the justice system and Don Dale youth detention revelations.
“An appalling demonstration of ignorance about the criminal justice system and its interface with Indigenous peoples, about existing cultures in prisons, within police departments,” Dodson said.
Watch Senator Dodson blast Senator Scullion:
“Some of the matters that the minister has indicated he is now seeking to get the collaboration with the states about were subject to the recommendations that were made at the time.”
Senator Dodson, a Yawuru elder who is a former chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, told Senator Scullion that recommendations on fine payment and reducing incarceration levels were contained in the former royal commission and suggested his staff “reaquaint themselves with the 339 recommendations that were made and have a serious look at the principles” behind duty of care and imprisonment as a last resort.
“And if those matters can be seriously inculcated into the good intentions you have in relation to collaboration with the states, then we may in fact get some traction to eradicate or at least impact upon the levels of incarceration rates, the levels of children being held in out-of-home care and some of those matters that go to domestic violence and other issues,” he said.
Senator Dodson’s withering blast came after the Indigenous Affairs Minister and senior public servants were probed over various matters, notably their knowledge of the Northern Territory youth detention system before the ABC’s Four Corners report on Don Dale, titled Australia’s Shame, in July.
Senator Scullion maintained the broadcast which showed children being teargassed and one teenager being hooded and restrained was much worse than what was previously on the public record.
“I had never received any briefings at all that matched any of the graphic circumstances that we saw in the Four Corners report,” he said.
He also countered Senator Dodson’s reference to the Royal Commission by saying that history could provide lessons but “not all of it is useful because things change”.
This was taken to be a reference to the burgeoning rates of family violence in Indigenous communities, and the balance between reducing incarceration rates and ensuring community safety.
“And I acknowledge what you say. I’m not trying to escape. I’m just saying I think things are worth a revisit from time to time, to have a look in the same context as you would have looked at 20 years ago but we have had some significant trends,” he said.
“I accept your advice. It’s sage advice. We will have a bit of another look at those matters.”
He also announced the Federal Government was offering funding for all states and territories to provide a mandatory helpline for Aboriginal people who are taken into police custody.
Friday’s grilling was the first time multiple Indigenous senators had conducted questioning in a Senate estimates hearing.
Questioned by NT senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator Scullion restated the government view that the current royal commission should be limited to the Top End, with scope to broaden the review.