26 Jul 2016

Australian PM launches inquiry after boys tear-gassed

12:25 pm on 26 July 2016

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a royal commission into the shocking mistreatment of children and young people in the Northern Territory's juvenile justice system.

A still from the ABC Four Corners investigative report.

A still from the ABC Four Corners investigative report. Photo: ABC

The announcement comes after revelations raised on ABC's Four Corner's programme.

This morning Mr Turnbull said the royal commission would be held in conjunction with the Northern Territory government.

"This is a shocking state of affairs and we will move quickly to establish what happened, as Gillian Triggs said last night, this needs a thorough inquiry," he said.

The Four Corners report, which contained graphic footage of prison guards stripping, assaulting and mistreating a teenage boy, who was one of six children tear-gassed at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin in 2014, sparked widespread outrage on social media, with the Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs calling for an independent inquiry into the treatment of Northern Territory children in detention.

"Like all Australians, I have been deeply shocked, shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment at the Don Dale Centre," Mr Turnbull said.

"I have been speaking overnight and early this morning with the Chief Minister Adam Giles, with my Attorney-General Senator [George] Brandis, with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion, and also the Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs.

"We will be establishing a royal commission into these events, into this centre; we intend to do so jointly with the Northern Territory Government.

Mr Turnbull said the treatment of youths by the NT corrections system needed a "thorough inquiry... to get to the bottom of it, and expose what occurred and expose the culture that allowed it to occur and allowed it to remain unrevealed for so long".

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declares victory for the ruling conservatives at a press conference in Sydney on July 10, 2016.

Malcolm Turnbull appalled by the footage of mistreatment. Photo: AFP

"This centre has been a controversial one in the past, and there have been as we know, inquiries into it in the Northern Territory," he said.

"And yet this evidence was not revealed in those inquiries.

"So there are many issues of concern here, and we will get to the bottom of it, and we will appoint a very thorough, meticulous examination of this."

Indigenous elder and shadow assistant Indigenous affairs minister Pat Dodson said it was a matter of "utter shame".

Senator Dodson was one of the commissioners overseeing the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which ran from 1987 to 1991.

"The fact that young people had been treated in this matter obviously shows that there is no concept of the duty of care, which is a principal matter highlighted in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody," he said.

Mr Turnbull's announcement was welcomed by Ms Triggs.

"I'm very thankful. I think this speedy reaction to really a shocking evidence, the filming, and I think it's an illustration of leadership, where we can start to, as the Prime Minister says, get to the bottom of this."

Soon after the report aired NT Chief Minister Adam Giles released a statement saying he "like all Australians... was shocked and disgusted by tonight's Four Corner's programme".

A still from the ABC Four Corners investigative report.

A still from the ABC Four Corners investigative report. Photo: ABC

"A community is judged by the way it treats its children and serious questions were raised by ABC tonight," Mr Giles said.

Mr Giles reiterated his support for the staff at Darwin's correctional facilities.

"I have full confidence in the majority of custodial officers working in the Northern Territory's institutions.

"They have a challenging and difficult job, one that not many people wish to do."

The NT corrections system has been plagued by accusations of mistreatment of offenders and a run of escapes from custody, culminating in the resignation of the former commissioner of corrections Ken Middlebrook, who featured in the Four Corners report.

After Mr Middlebrook's exit, Mr Giles announced a "root and branch" review of NT corrections policies and procedures.

In 2014, the ABC revealed guards who restrained and stripped a teenage boy naked at an Alice Springs detention centre in 2010 had been given the backing of Mr Middlebrook.

The actions were backed by then-corrections minister Robyn Lambley, who said "restraint of any kind is only ever used as a last resort and only in situations where there is a threat to a detainee or staff".