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Interview: Attorney General George Brandis -

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SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: The Federal Cabinet will consider draft terms of reference for the new royal commission on Thursday.

The Federal Attorney-General, George Brandis, is overseeing that process. He joined me earlier from our studio in Brisbane.

George Brandis, thanks for talking to 7.30.


SABRA LANE: Did you watch last night's Four Corners?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Yes, I did. I did. Like all the people who watched it, I thought it was just appalling. It's horrifying to think that that can happen in Australia.

And that's why the Government moved very swiftly and decisively this morning to announce a royal commission: an inquiry that we're conducting jointly with the Northern Territory Government to ensure that the reasons that this conduct was allowed to occur; the reasons that it was not... that it was not seen through oversight mechanisms, for example, didn't exist; whether there is a culture, it appears there may well have been, of abuse in the child detention system in the Northern Territory.

SABRA LANE: When will you settle on the terms of reference? And how quickly would you like this inquiry to report back?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I expect to take some draft terms of reference to Cabinet on Thursday. I have already drafted terms of reference, which I have discussed with the Prime Minister and with others. And I expect those to be finalised in time to be taken to Cabinet on Thursday.

And as to when the inquiry begins: there are always administrative arrangements to be attended to before an inquiry can commence its hearings, but I would expect that it would be under way sometime in September.

SABRA LANE: Will it just focus on the Don Dale Centre? Or will it be more broadly across the Northern Territory juvenile and detention centre; or, indeed, across the national detention centre, given that advocates are saying that their problems aren't isolated to the Northern Territory?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, look, obviously the Don Dale Centre and what was exposed on Four Corners last night will be the principal focus of the inquiry. But it won't be limited to the Don Dale Centre. The terms of reference will be broad enough to examine abuses and practices across the juvenile detention system in the Northern Territory.

We don't propose to take it beyond the Northern Territory, because that's the particular problem that has been exposed. And I think one of the things about these royal commissions is: if they're going to be useful, if they're going to provide practical solutions to real and urgent problems, they should be focused.

So we're going to make sure the focus is on the juvenile detention system in the Northern Territory.

SABRA LANE: Lunchtime yesterday the Indigenous affairs Minister and the Minister for the Northern Territory, Nigel Scullion, was urged to watch the report. He didn't. He watched it when the Prime Minister asked him to. Mr Scullion says his interest wasn't piqued by stories of Indigenous incarceration last year. Is he the right man for the job?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, look, I haven't seen Senator Scullion's remarks. But I can assure you, knowing him as I do as both a colleague and a friend: there wouldn't be a person I can think of with a deeper concern in that portfolio for the wellbeing of Indigenous people - and a really practical common-sense appreciation of the needs of Indigenous communities - than Nigel Scullion.

SABRA LANE: The elements of the story aren't new. The Territory's former child commissioner warned in 2012 and again 2014 about serious mistreatment and abuse. The 2012 report appears not to have been acted upon; and, indeed, video was kept from that 2014 inquiry. Is there a cultural problem in the Territory?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, that's one of the things that we want the royal commission to look at: why it was that there were early warning signs - and more than, by the way, just warning signs: there were explicit warnings in relation to this particular centre, the Don Dale Centre, among others, that were sounded that apparently were not acted upon or not acted upon sufficiently. So that's one of the things that we'll ask the inquiry to look at.

SABRA LANE: And video: the officers didn't seem to worry about the fact that they were being recorded or they had a duty of care?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Yeah. Well, I mean, that among other things - and again, I want to be careful not to pre-empt what the royal commission discovers - but what that shows, among other things, is a woeful failure to train and educate the officers administering these juvenile detention centres as to what is acceptable conduct and practice.

SABRA LANE: The vision of that 17-year-old shackled to the mechanical chair and hooded in a vulnerable mental state: the Northern Territory has now passed laws enabling children as young as 10 to be put in those restraints. As the nation's first legal officer, what do you think of that?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, once again, I don't want to get in ahead of an inquiry that we have only announced today.

But I would make the point to you that there are occasions, when people threaten self-harm, that they do for their own safety need to be restrained. But nevertheless, obviously the visual image of what we saw was very confronting.

SABRA LANE: And he was abandoned in that cell for two hours?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, again, that's a matter that the royal commission can look at: the extent to which the duty of care, which undoubtedly exists to juveniles in a centre like this, was breached or may have been breached; or, indeed, the extent to which the fact that there was a duty of care was even appreciated by those responsible.

SABRA LANE: Do you know what's happened to any of those juveniles that we saw in those videos last night?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I'm not going to comment on particular cases - and, in fact, I do not.

SABRA LANE: And will the commission look at what's happened to these people? And what chance they've got of rehabilitation?

GEORGE BRANDIS: The commission will have terms of reference sufficiently wide and sufficiently penetrating to get to the bottom of the conduct that was revealed last night; and the broader question of the extent to which it is systemic conduct in the Northern Territory system; and the reasons why it was allowed to exist and to become a practice that was regarded as unremarkable by the officers who we saw in the vision last night; and why warning signs and earlier criticism was not sufficiently - or, indeed, at all - acted upon.

SABRA LANE: Attorney-General, thank you for talking to 7.30 tonight.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Pleasure, Sabra.