Humanitarian groups are calling on the Turnbull government to expand the terms of reference for the proposed royal commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention to include all children, including minors in immigration detention.
Ahead of cabinet consideration of the terms of reference for the inquiry on Thursday, a move that follows a damning Four Corners report into the treatment of minors at the Don Dale centre, human rights lawyer and the executive director of Refugee Legal, David Manne, told Guardian Australia the inquiry was a timely opportunity to look at the impact of detention on children across the board.
“I think the terms of reference should be expanded to include all children deprived of their liberty by the Australian government – all minors deprived of their liberty by the state,” Manne said.
“The royal commission provides a timely opportunity to inquire into this practice which has gone on in this country for far too long,” he said.
Manne said children both in juvenile detention and in immigration detention had been subjected to harmful conditions and the government assumed responsibility for care for the child when they were detained.
He said the new inquiry would provide an opportunity to deal with “longstanding profound concerns about the severe mistreatment and indeed abuse of children seeking asylum”.
Cabinet on Thursday will consider terms of reference for the proposed inquiry and the Turnbull government is already in discussion with potential candidates to conduct the royal commission.
The prime minister will resist entreaties to broaden the terms of reference. Malcolm Turnbull made it clear on Tuesday he wants the inquiry to be targeted to events in the territory, and to report by early next year in order to address the specifics highlighted by the Four Corners report.
The chief minister of the NT, Adam Giles, has said the royal commission must also examine the child protection system as well as the corrections system. The root cause of the problem he nominated as too many “unloved” kids in the territory who ended up in the child protection system, then found themselves in the justice system.
President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, suggested the proposed royal commission be broadened to include juvenile justice centres in other states, a call that has been seconded by a parade of peak Indigenous and legal bodies, including the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.
Peter O’Brien, lawyer for Dylan Voller, the teenager featured in the Four Corners report, said the terms of reference should be “as broad as possible”.
“I have fielded calls throughout the day from lawyers representing kids from around the country … so I think there is a case to say that it should be expanded to other jurisdictions,” O’Brien told Guardian Australia.
Benedict Coyne, president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, said the inquiry needed to look at broader issues of systemic racism.
About 96% of the NT’s prison population is Indigenous.
The former Labor senator for the Northern Territory Nova Peris questioned the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion’s, claim on Tuesday that he was unaware of what was going on at the Don Dale detention facility in Berrimah.
“For Nigel to say, he wasn’t aware,” Peris said. “Come on Nigel. You can’t put your head in the sand, you can’t wipe your hands of this.”
She said during her time in parliament, Labor had tried to set justice targets to reduce the numbers of children being incarcerated – bolstered by support programs – but Scullion had dismissed the idea.
Peris, who left politics at the last election, said she had seen the detention centre with Darwin lawyer Jared Sharp in 2015 and was shocked by the experience.
Peris returned to Canberra and in a speech in the Senate, describing the Don Dale centre facility as a disgrace.
“We have seen cuts to frontline services and cuts to juvenile diversionary programs when we need to be giving kids hope,” she told Guardian Australia.
“Instead we see children detained, in remand without being convicted of anything. They are put into an adult jail with no rehabilitation. We are failing these young kids because [at] some stage they are going back into society.”
Peris said the former NT correctional services minister John Elferink should have been sacked from the Northern Territory ministry altogether, rather than just stood down from the corrections portfolio.
Rodney Dillon, an Indigenous rights activist with Amnesty, called on the Australian government to sign up to the UN’s optional protocol to the convention against torture (Opcat) to ensure investigators from outside the country could oversee such detention.
Dillon said Aboriginal people would not have much faith in the royal commission process, given the recommendations of the last royal commission into deaths in custody were not fully implemented.
“I don’t think it stops at one child detention centre, this would be happening through other watch houses as well,” Dillon said.
“We need to ask how kids who have gone through this are feeling and helping those families.
“What those kids have done in the first place may not be right, but it’s nothing short of torture. People have been having their way with Aboriginal people, they can do what they like with them, we are treated like second-class citizens and worse.”