A still image from footage shown in the Four Corners episode
A still image from footage shown in the Four Corners episode

I am indebted to Bob Gosford for posting the speech delivered by Michael Gunner at the Garma Festival. If the bookies are right, by end of month Gunner will be Northern Territory chief minister. But before he ascends those dizzy heights Territorians are owed an explanation in some detail of what he has in mind for the NT criminal justice system.

I applaud Michael for stepping up on accepting blame for what has happened at Don Dale.

He said:

“Repeated Northern Territory governments have failed in their duty towards the children in our care. As the leader of the Labor Party in the NT I accept our share of the responsibility. As the leader of the Labor Party in the NT I want to be part of the solution.”

Well said, Michael, now all you need to do is persuade your new Labor Senator and former Labor minister Malarndirri McCarthy to agree to a media interview to answer the allegation that she presided over the “worst child protection system” the Northern Territory has ever seen.

Good luck with that one since Bill Shorten clearly isn’t interested in his new “captain’s pick” being embroiled in the current controversy.

Back to Michael Gunner. He said in his Garma speech:

‘’I give you this commitment. If Labor is elected we will fix the youth justice system so that it works properly.”

Let’s all agree we want a system that works, because the “one man” crime waves that invade our homes and businesses won’t be tolerated by the NT community — black and white.

If that offends the “chattering classes” down south — the commentators, lawyers, UN cheer squad — then try walking in our shoes. I didn’t introduce mandatory sentencing for property offences on a whim; I did so after careful consideration of all the reasonable options.

My successor took a different tack and was dispatched by the electorate 18 months later. Restorative justice and diversionary programs work with some, but not hardened criminals, some of whom are juveniles.

With that in mind the electorate is entitled to some plain unambiguous speaking. What do you intend, Michael?

It is what Michael said subsequently when he wandered away from the current controversy whirling around the Don Dale Centre that had my antennae up.

“We will remove bad laws like paperless arrests, alcohol protection orders, we will abolish the current mandatory alcohol treatment and we will stop the government using that chair that restrains children that was on television [emphasis on ‘we will remove bad laws]. Many of these laws unfairly impact Aboriginal people — and that is something we will not accept. This is about more than youth justice we must get it right for all our kids from the very beginning. [emphasis on this is about more than youth justice].”

Why is it that I am left with the impression that Territory Labor proposes to dismantle many of the measures that have delivered historically low crime rates during the CLP government?

We all agree that indigenous incarceration rates are far too high; indeed under Territory Labor they reached dizzying heights. That’s not a criticism — if people commit crimes they will do the time, regardless of colour. Also, let us not overlook the fact that many of the victims of crime are indigenous people, and they are owed the same level of protection as the rest of us.

Mandatory sentencing nowadays is not uncommon. Notwithstanding that I was roundly condemned at the time Australia-wide the mandate given by Territorians in the general election of 1997 was unequivocal and unambiguous.

The CLP government would do well to cut through the current controversy and articulate their law and order policies, particularly those that have delivered a safer, more law-abiding community.

I am wondering out loud whether the royal commission should proceed at all. Look at the mess we are in — Coalition and Labor can’t agree on the commissioner(s), the Commissioner has resigned, senior people — black and white — are calling into question whether a royal commission is justified and best way forward, and indigenous leaders say they weren’t consulted on the terms of reference.

The commission has been politicised as the blame game continues, and given the proximity to the NT election the well appears poisoned beyond recovery.

Justice delayed is justice denied. This was and remains a police matter. The quickest way to the truth is police, not a drawn-out protracted inquiry that plays to the daily political debate as both side fire shots at each other.  That won’t deliver the renewed and reformed juvenile justice system that we and the kids drawn into it need.

*To read more on mandatory sentencing in the NT scroll down to part 3, Attorney-General in Chapter 10 of the Stone Family in Australia archives.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog Northern Myth

Peter Fray

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