Malcolm Turnbull and the Northern Territory chief minister, Adam Giles, are emphasising speed with the proposed royal commission into juvenile detention, signalling a commissioner will be appointed shortly and a report will be produced early next year.

But the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, is urging the two governments to be more comprehensive.

On Tuesday she proposed a two-stage royal commission: an immediate investigation and report addressing the abuses in Don Dale detention facility in Berrimah, outside Darwin, followed by a longer, broader commission investigating Australia’s wider detention regimes.

Labor is also calling for a systemic inquiry. “What we would urge on the government is that it be a full examination of the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory,” said the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, on Tuesday.

“It shouldn’t just be confined to the particular prison where these young boys were kept, in fact where these young boys were tortured. We need to make sure that it is a systemic inquiry,” he said.

In a letter publicised by his solicitor on Tuesday night, Dylan Voller, the teenager shown wearing restraints and a spit hood in now-defining images of juvenile detention in the NT, thanked Australians for their support.

“I would just like to thank the whole Australian community for the support you have showed for us a boy’s as well as our families. I would also like to take this opportunity to apologise to the community for my wrongs and I can’t wait to get out and make up for them.”

Dylan Voller letter
The letter from Dylan Voller, released by his lawyer. Photograph: Supplied
Dylan Voller
The letter written by Dylan Voller from prison after his story was aired on Four Corners. Photograph: Supplied

Voller is in an adult prison and his solicitor, Peter O’Brien, is calling for his immediate release. He and other former detainees of the Don Dale detention facility have announced their intention to sue the NT government.

The prime minister on Tuesday morning said the government intended to establish a royal commission after a Four Corners report on Monday night that aired shocking footage exposing the treatment of children at the old Don Dale detention facility.

Turnbull later told reporters in Townsville the government intended to move quickly and decisively, with a directions hearing next month, substantive evidence to be heard in September, October and November, and a report tabled next year.

Speaking to reporters in Darwin the NT chief minister, Adam Giles, said the inquiry needed to examine not only corrections in the territory, but the child protection system as well.

Four Corners shows boy being stripped by Northern Territory detention staff

Giles, who dumped his corrections minister, John Elferink, from the portfolio after the program aired, and took an executive decision on Tuesday to build a new youth detention centre, declared there was a “culture of coverup” in the NT corrections system.

But Giles also stressed the need for a speedy inquiry. He said he wanted the royal commission conducted in as “short a timeframe as possible so we can get the recommendations put into place as soon as possible. We don’t want this being a multi-year inquiry”.

The NT chief minister faced a barrage of questions from reporters about how he could claim to be ignorant of the abhorrent practices shown in the Four Corners report when inquiries presented to his government had already outlined in detail the key facts, including instances of inhumane solitary confinement, the inappropriate use of restraints and spit hoods, and unlawful transfers to the adult prison.

Giles dug in, declaring the vision aired by Four Corners was “new to me. I have never seen that vision that was on television last night”.

The Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, told reporters in Canberra he had not been aware of the footage either, and despite being a NT senator, he had not seen the Four Corners program until the prime minister rang him on Monday night in a “fairly agitated” state after the program had gone to air, advising him to watch it.

Scullion was asked whether he had been briefed about the inquiries done in the NT given they were directly relevant to his portfolio responsibilities. “I assumed that the Northern Territory government were taking care of this matter and that I didn’t take any further action.”

Pressed to explain why he had not sought a briefing given the damning reports, Scullion said he was disappointed not to have been briefed, but “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

“The facts of the matter were: I didn’t know, I’d never seen the vision, it hadn’t come to my attention, it hadn’t piqued my interest sufficiently.”

Scullion said it had not piqued his interest because the report was to the Northern Territory government and it “commissions lots of matters germane to their responsibility”.

“I’m not making excuses about it, I would have loved to have known earlier.”

Triggs told reporters in Sydney, comparisons of the abuses of Don Dale with those in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib were “not too extreme”. She said the abuses at Don Dale were one manifestation of a growing trend in Australia of detention under extraordinary conditions, often arbitrary, indefinite and without right to appeal.

“We have a tolerance for detention without trial, without access to the courts, with a very high reliance on ministerial discretion which is neither compellable nor reviewable. This is a trend in Australia over the last 10 years, and we’re seeing it play out in a lot of areas: sex offenders, terrorism suspects, 501 visa cancellations, we’re seeing it over and over again.

“I would make the broader point that when you chip away at the rule of law and basic rights, ultimately, you falter profoundly ... with [the emergence of] a culture that has allowed this to occur in the Northern Territory.”

Triggs said Australia should, as a matter of priority, ratify the optional protocol to the convention against torture, known as Opcat.

The Opcat was passed by the UN’s general assembly in 2002 and came into force globally in 2006. Australia is in the unusual position of having signed the treaty in 2009 – an indication of support for the purposes of the treaty – but not ratified it, which would make the country legally bound to adhere to it.

The Opcat requires state parties to set up an independent monitoring body that has unrestricted access to all places of detention, including prisons, police lockups, juvenile detention centres, immigration detention facilities, locked psychiatric facilities and secure disability and aged care facilities.

Successive Australian governments have consistently said they were actively considering ratifying the Opcat, but none has yet done it.

“Australia signed this treaty something like nine years ago, and we’ve done almost nothing since,” Triggs said.

“There’s been a dragging of the chain, and I think one of the outcomes [of this royal commission] could be to ensure the speedy ratification of that procedure so we can have a national process with proper standards and proper monitoring. I think that would be a very, very major way forward.”

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Gooda, said Aboriginal Australians had been bitterly disappointed by “inquiry after inquiry” into Aboriginal incarceration and disadvantage, including three specifically into the Don Dale centre. He said the recommendations of previous royal commissions and reports had been consistently ignored.

“Our people have known about things like this, have advocated so hard, and to just see it laid bare in front of us last night, must be a wake-up call to everyone in Australia that something’s got to be done about the way we lock our people up in this country, and particularly the way we lock our kids up.

“What we saw last night is an absolute disgrace. What we saw this morning was decisive leadership from a prime minister whom I think cares.”

He said Australia would be judged as a nation on how it addressed, this time, the issue of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in detention.

“The modus operandi of the NT government is this: shoot the messenger, discredit the report and demonise these kids, so people out of the street think it’s OK for that to happen to these kids.”

He said beyond the facts of what occurred in Don Dale, Australia, more broadly, needs to examine the underlying causes of why these children are being detained.

“I refuse to believe our kids are the most criminal kids in the world, just as I refuse to believe our people are the most criminal.”

Gooda said the federal government could consider taking over control of the Northern Territory from a dysfunctional territory government.

“If it was an Aboriginal organisation who’d disregarded so many reports and behaved the way they do, they would have appointed administrators long ago, so maybe the government needs to think about that as an option.”

The prime minister was asked whether he supported Giles. “I have confidence in the chief minister, I have – but ... he needs the confidence of the people of the Northern Territory.”

Scullion was asked about Gooda’s call for the commonwealth to essentially override the territory government. The minister said this call from Gooda was a reasonable expression of his outrage but he said Giles had been devastated by the Four Corners report and was now rolling up his sleeves.


Katharine Murphy, Ben Doherty and Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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