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“Territory’s government courts suspension”
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“Territory’s government courts suspension”

Jake ElsonProblems reported Australia’s Northern Territory youth prison system are the latest to be uncovered in a string of grievances of a disappointed territory, writes Jake Elson, 22, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Bunbury in Australia.

When the leading provincial newspaper uses its entire front page to call for the federal government to dismiss an entire government, there is something horrendously wrong.

But that is what has occurred. On the 27th of July, 2016, the Northern Territory News plastered the front page with a timeline relating to the recent allegations of systematic abuse in the Northern Territory (NT) juvenile prison system, revealed by ABC’s Four Corners programme with a poignant message: “Sack the lot of them!” [1]

It must be remembered that when it comes to deciding what the federal government should do with the Northern Territory’s government over this issue, reason must trump emotion. One can argue that the suspension of responsible government for Australia’s third largest political entity over incidents of child abuse would be an emotional knee-jerk reaction. However, if one takes into account the behaviour of the NT government, as well as the record of the past three years, then such calls become strongly reasonable. So what is the story?

To start, it is imperative to delve into the facts concerning the most recent scandal. Reports show negligence and utter contempt for the rehabilitation of juvenile prisoners, not just as mandated by the United Nations, but as an important cornerstone of a liberal democracy, by elected officials. Essentially, the Four Corners investigation revealed disturbing accounts of a youth prisoner being held in mechanical restraints whilst hooded [2], systematic torture, abuse and bullying of fellow youth prisoners [3], and accusations of staff behaviour unbecoming of corrections officers [4][5].

What makes this matter worse is the seemingly atrocious apathy to this situation. The recently dismissed NT Corrections minister, Mr. John Elferink, has been likened to judge and jury by the local press [5]. Whilst it must be remember that no single person should be the sole recipient of blame, as many politicians, both Liberal and Labour, have ignored the issue, Elferink’s behaviour in the role is concerning. Under him, the restraint chair which has become the symbol of the issue was legalised [7].

Furthermore, under his watch, a policy of ‘tough love’ was further ingrained. It seems to be a mentality of territory politics – current Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Adam Giles has previously endorsed this attitude, claiming in 2010 that the ‘softly softly’ approach was causing more problems [10]. Senator Nigel Scullion, himself from the Territory, has been accused of apathy and disinterest on the issue [11].

This is just the tip of the iceberg of current problems for the most popular Territory administration since the Gilruth Administration of almost 100 years ago [12]. Chief Minister Giles, since deposing Terry Mills in a backroom coup in 2013, has been accused of arrogance and incompetence. These words are not to be taken lightly. This was the same administration that leased the Port of Darwin for 99 years to a Chinese company which has been accused of having ties with both the Chinese Communist Party and the Peoples Liberation Army – a concerning decision considering the recent behaviour of China in the South China Sea under Xi Jinping, as well as the cantonment of a detachment of US Marines in the NT since 2013[13]. Other decisions include unpopular budget cuts, more privatisation, and the decision to re-hire an unpopular Police Commissioner.[14]

It is therefore unreasonable to claim that suspension of responsible government is an emotional knee jerk reaction. It must also be remembered that there is both legal and constitutional provision. As the Northern Territory is not a State (hence the name) and not subject to the constitutional protection of responsible government the original six have, it is legally possible for Canberra to suspend a territory’s responsible government. This occurred with Norfolk Island only just this year,  where a shire council has limited powers. A model ofwhat would replace it can also take inspiration from Commonwealth precedents – a replacement government can follow in the footsteps of the Dominion of Newfoundland’s Commission of Government from 1934-1949, or the direction taken after the suspension of responsible government in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009 [15].

Whatever the decision of the federal government, this scandal has woken many, not just at the top end, but across Australia and the world, to the issues faced by juvenile inmates, who are are treated in unacceptable fashion by a government less interested in rehabilitation. A society is judged on how it treats its criminals. If one region does not care about rehabilitation and demonises children, how can it ever be considered humane?

On a political front, for Territorians, this has proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back – a discontent people have finally had enough. The Territory goes to the polls later this year. Provided responsible government has not been suspended, the current administration is likely to be shut out of Parliament. But if we rest content in another administration coming in and bringing change, we are deluding ourselves. Canberra needs to step in and assert federal power if we are ever going to see true change.

[1]https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CoTP6S1UkAQ-7Yc.jpg:large

[2]http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-25/child-hooded-to-mechanical-restraint-chair-in-nt-detention/7659008

[3]http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-25/child-hooded-to-mechanical-restraint-chair-in-nt-detention/7659008

[4]http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-25/young-boy-victimised-in-youth-detention-in-northern-territory/7657708

[5] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-27/boys-club-nt-corrections-to-blame-juvenile-abuse-four-corners/7665616

[6] http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/northern-territory/former-corrections-minister-john-elferink-allowed-to-serve-as-the-territorys-judge-jury-and-executioner/news-story/466e9d4565b9f00bcd2622d3fbbd884f

[7] http://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-truly-shocking-thing-about-the-nts-juvenile-detention-abuse-is-how-many-times-the-alarm-was-raised-and-ignored-2016-7

[8]http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-26/the-nt-has-known-about-juvenile-mistreatment-for-years/7661124

[9]http://www.news.com.au/national/politics/sacked-nt-corrections-minister-john-elferinks-colourful-political-career/news-story/e9c5d093db77a8b7b030f8c5305bf7a7

[10] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-27/giles-complained-of-flaccid-treatment-of-nt-prisoners-2010/7664080

[11] http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/national/nigel-scullions-disinterest-in-four-corners-report-is-damning/news-story/b4186d73cec6579eba06fe970906bc4e

[12] https://www.jstor.org/stable/27507840?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[13] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/defence/military-ties-to-darwin-ports-chinese-owner-landbridge-group/news-story/760002593ca7edca6a3b9f2fbccba958

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/feb/04/a-day-is-a-long-time-in-northern-territory-politics

[15] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_politics/8202339.stm

Reach me on Twitter https://twitter.com/JakeElson1

photo credit: Maitland Gaol IMG_8215 via photopin (license)

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About me:

I am a history buff, but also am into soccer. I referee soccer, and would like to go FIFA one day.  I’m currently studying politics and international relations at Edith Cowan University. My aim is to become a police officer in Western Australia, and I would like to be Prime Minister one day.

I am a Conservative and a Monarchist, and believe in the role of the Commonwealth as a tool for good.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

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