With clarity gained over the passage of time, a co-commissioner who headed up the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory has used last week's 2018 Human Rights Day Oration to reflect upon his experiences behind the bench, as he watched people defend and accuse the youth detention system of failing the Territory's most vulnerable children.
During the speech, former co-commissioner Mick Gooda recalled "sitting there watching racism play out before us."
The oration, delivered alongside his co-commissioner, the Hon Margaret White AO, at an event to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also included a recollection of Mr Gooda's intense reaction after watching an episode of Four Corners in 2016 that featured a young Dylan Voller, then unknown to the Australian public.
After the program aired, the Australian Human Rights Commission's Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner received a phone call from the then Assistant Minister for Health, Ken Wyatt. Mr Gooda claimed he told the Assistant Minister, "I don't know how to cope with what I've just seen."
"I don’t know how to cope with what I’ve just seen."
"Ken Wyatt rang me and he said, 'What do you reckon Mick?'", Mr Gooda told the audience. "I said, 'I don’t know mate. I’m in the dark here. I’ve just watched it and I’ve actually turned the lights out. I don’t know how to cope with what I’ve just seen.' "
Seven days after the Four Corners program, Mr Gooda was appointed to jointly run the Royal Commission investigating the mistreatment of youth in detention with Margaret White, a former Queensland Supreme Court Judge. Mr Gooda then stood down from his position on the Australian Human Rights Commission.
"For someone who had worked for so long around criminal justice systems and trying to reform it, I had never had that much contact with the system itself," Mr Gooda said. "And I tell you what, to get that first contact as a commissioner on a Royal Commission, that first intimate contact, it’s a bit weird. It is safe to say, I was probably the only non-lawyer in the senior structure within the Royal Commission, but I think it worked.
"While Margaret certainly controlled the hearings, I had plenty of time to sit there and observe what was happening."
Mr Gooda had spent seven years at the Human Rights Commission. When he departed, the Commission President Gillian Triggs said he was "a great Indigenous leader who brings a powerful voice to those who need it most".
In his speech, Mr Gooda described himself as a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, who is always the optimist.
What was revealed at the Royal Commission, however, would challenge the most committed of optimists.
"I think I was naive, I thought we were all on the same page," Mr Gooda said. "Everyone who was working on the Royal Commission; the people representing the kids, people representing the government who were there to literally put into effect the terms of reference, to uncover what went wrong in the last ten years, and to make recommendations about the youth detention and youth justice systems.
"But sitting there on the bench, observing this up close, I had to make some observations.
... the lawyers from the Northern Territory Government weren’t that interested in finding out what went wrong.
"I worked out that the lawyers from the Northern Territory Government weren’t that interested in finding out what went wrong, and that’s the naivety I take into it. They were basically only interested in protecting the government."
Mr Gooda explained the young people called to testify were consistently cross-examined by the solicitors representing the Northern Territory. However, Mr Gooda claimed the same degree of questioning was not applied across the board to everyone.
“We saw guards come before us who were encouraging the kids in detention to eat bird sh**, and told them 'to suck my d***' and there wasn’t one question, not one question for the Northern Territory government solicitors to those people," said Mr Gooda.
"Dylan Voller was confronted in a cell [by] three guards. One bloke was caught on closed circuit TV throwing wet paper towels at the cameras. One kept guard outside the door and the other one kept guard and the purpose was to threaten Dylan Voller.
"Not one question. And those people came from the Northern Territory Government."
The interrogation of vulnerable witnesses during the Royal Commission still concerns Mr Gooda, to this day.
In his speech, Mr Gooda described the former Corrections Minister, Ken Littlemore, as "a man I could respect" due to Mr Littlemore's cooperation with answering every question put to him during the inquiry.
At the other end of the spectrum, according to Mr Gooda, was the former Northern Territory Chief Minister, Adam Giles.
"[He] came to us and said, 'I’ve come here to make life better for the future of Aboriginal kids in the Northern Territory'. And after he gave us his assurance he was there to make life better for our kids, the ABC counted sixty times in the first hour he said, 'I can’t recall'. He was belligerent, he was uncooperative."
"...sixty times he said I can’t recall. He was belligerent, he was uncooperative."
"A few months after the Royal Commission, the true colours came out about Adam Giles and this is why we’ve got to watch our politicians. He said the Royal Commission was a waste of time and knew nothing good would come out of it. I said to him, 'You didn’t say that the day you congratulated me on my appointment'.
"If I sound bitter, I am pretty bitter about it because I think, we sat there and listened.
"You can’t go through a Royal Commission I don’t believe as a commissioner or as staff, you can’t go in one end and out the other, unchanged."
"I describe the recommendations we put forward as an evolution towards somewhere better"
"I describe the recommendations we put forward as an evolution towards somewhere better. I don’t think any government in Australia is up for a revolution. I’d love it if they were, to wipe it clean and come up with something brand new. It’s an evolution.
"If we got the public health model and if we got Medicare right, we would solve nearly three quarters of those issues those kids face, because at the end of it all they are health problems, whether it is mental health, physical health or emotional health.
"I think the greatest thing we’re going to do is, we’re going to start the evolution of how we treat kids."
The Royal Commission final report was tabled in Parliament in November 2017, taking a little over one year for the co-commissioners to come to the tragic conclusion that not only have the systems failed to address challenges faced by children and young people, that have in some cases made the problems worse.
The Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry found shocking and systemic failures occurred over many years that were known and ignored at the highest levels.
To address the failed child protection, youth justice and detention systems, the Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry recommended wide-ranging reforms including the closure of the current Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and High Security Unit as well as increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 12.
Commissioner Gooda and Commissioner White stated at the time Royal Commission report was published “making greater use of diversion, ending detention for children under 14 unless there are exceptional circumstances and changing the model of secure detention are the bold but essential actions that must be taken if communities are to be safer and children protected.
“If no action is taken the financial cost to the Northern Territory will remain unsustainable in the short term, with detention costs rising from $37.3 million in 2016-17 to $113.4 million in 2026-27, according to Deloitte Access Economics.
“Conversely, changing the current approach to youth justice and detention as we recommend is estimated conservatively to deliver savings of $335.5 million by 2027.
“Human costs dwarf financial considerations and if no action is taken these will continue to escalate beyond the already unacceptable levels that are seen in the Northern Territory."
To view the 2018 Human Rights Day Oration in full go the Facebook page of the Australian Human Rights Commission.