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'A matter of shame' to witness what Aboriginal Deaths in Custody RC highlighted many years ago: Senator Pat Dodson -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well I'm joined on the line now by Indigenous leader and the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Pat Dodson.

Senator Dodson, welcome to the program.

PAT DODSON: Thank you very much.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: You were one of the commissioners who headed up the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. What confidence do you have that this royal commission will produce any lasting change?

PAT DODSON: Well look let me firstly say I admire the courage of those young men that spoke up about this matter, and I certainly want to compliment the lawyers that are frontline on this for their persistence and their exposure of the heinous kind of treatment that seems to have taken place and perpetrated upon young people.

Now in terms of royal commissions it's obviously, I didn't hear the Prime Minister say he was going to consult the Opposition but I hope he does because there is a lot of experience and this is a matter that requires bipartisanship in order to give us some confidence that we're not just putting this back in the hands of the political people who are actually running both states, the Commonwealth and the Territory. So there needs to be clear bipartisanship across this.

It is a matter of utter shame that we've had to witness what the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had highlighted many years ago.

The fact that young people have been treated in this matter obviously shows that there's no concept of the duty of care which is a principle matter highlighted in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

There's no clarity about the obligations that the Minister responsible in the Northern Territory actually committed, conducted his duties in any diligent manner.

It's clear that the senior officer on the occasion that the gas was being used was very derelict in his leadership.

So there's a range of things here that have to be inquired into. A royal commission can only make recommendations. It can certainly subpoena people. But at the end of the day, it's a political matter that has to come to bear. And if there's no desire in the Northern Territory Government to rectify the laws that was brought about to lead to these draconian sort of situations, then it's not going to do much.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So clearly Labor will support the idea - will support the Royal Commission. Who should lead it and what should its terms of reference be, do you think?

PAT DODSON: Well that's a matter that the Government is obviously going to inquire into. It obviously needs, I would hope that someone out of the, you know, with experience that'd going to be advised by senior counsel that we saw with John Lawrence and people like that. The Bar Council have got to be involved in making some choice about who ought to do this very serious matter.

Obviously it tends to be lawyers or ex-judges as the Prime Minister has said because of the complexity of the laws.

But the laws in fact in this case may well be the problem. If you're just going to assess what the laws are, whether the people behaved according to the law, that may not be sufficient.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And is this just a problem in the Northern Territory?

PAT DODSON: No, it's not a problem. I think the attitude that people have alluded to in the commentary about, you know, law and order type campaigns, lock them up and throw the key away kinds of attitudes, mandatory sentencing, you know, this tough on crime attitude - the Royal Commission is going to find it difficult to expose that because it will operate within a framework of those existing legal structures.

So you really have to a terms of reference that are clearly going to enable a commissioner to inquire into those matters as well to what happened on the occasion that these boys were gassed and treated the way they were treated.

So there's two things, one is what happened on the occasion that these things were done, were they legal or irresponsible or contrary to international covenants on treaties and on torture of children; or are they matters that are more broader.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And obviously a royal commission will take a considerable amount of time. Is there something that should be done immediately about the problem in the Northern Territory?

PAT DODSON: Well, you know, it's a question of leadership here, and I congratulate the Prime Minister for moving as quickly as he has.

But it's a question of leadership in the Northern Territory.

I mean, you know, you've got a person who is the Attorney-General, he's the head legal officer in the Northern Territory. That person ought to be set aside immediately, should be set aside until this inquiry takes place.

I mean in any other theatre of operation, the person who is responsible for the oversight of these duties and responsibilities, if they've got any honour about them, ought to stand aside voluntarily or they ought to be set aside by their Chief Minister or by the leader.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So the Government needs to act today?

PAT DODSON: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, these kids have been subject to this torture and this treatment since, you know, 2010 basically, and some of them repeatedly.

You can't allow the people that have been in charge of this, who don't seem to have known what was going on, to remain in charge.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Should there be prosecutions?

PAT DODSON: Well I think that's a matter for discovery. That's a matter for the Royal Commission to look at. And if it's got capacity, we've got to make sure that those recommendations are made, but that's going to be a difficult matter as well.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I notice the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory says he didn't know the situation was quite as bad as was revealed last night. Is that plausible?

PAT DODSON: I would have thought that's an irresponsible attitude to take to this. I mean you know - if you're going to talk tough on crime, if you're going to beat up kids, then you would want to know what the people you've endorsed to do the bullying are actually conducting. I don't find that a plausible answer at all.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: As I said at the start, it's 25 years since the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission and rates of indigenous incarceration are still extraordinarily high.

When you reflect on that, are you surprised we're at this point 25 years on?

PAT DODSON: Look, you know, we had a famous writer in Australia that reckoned we're going to remain a race of thieves if we didn't rectify the injustices about the theft of land from Aboriginal people.

We're rapidly reinforcing the nation we're a race of jailers. We constantly, constantly incarcerate the Aboriginal people.

If the Prime Minister and other people really want to take this matter on than this ought to be a matter for COAG, the reduction to incarceration rates, the reduction to putting kids into away from home detention, and the way in which the legal system is operated by mandatory sentencing and other factors, ought to be put on the COAG agenda for the purposes of reducing the incarceration rates and the appalling detention rates of young people.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Pat Dodson, thanks very much for joining us.

PAT DODSON: Thank you.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Senator Pat Dodson, the assistant shadow minister for Indigenous affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.