Nigel Scullion 'didn't care enough to act' on alleged Don Dale abuse, says Shorten

‘He shouldn’t be in the job,’ says Labor leader as documents reveal Indigenous affairs minster had four briefings on issue before Four Corners footage aired

Bill Shorten has accused the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, of not caring enough to act on the alleged abuses occurring inside the Don Dale juvenile detention centre, after freedom of information documents revealed he received four briefings on the issue before Four Corners aired footage of the incidents.

The briefing notes, obtained by Crikey and published on Thursday, reveal Scullion was aware of an August 2014 disturbance at Don Dale and the use of teargas on detainees, as well as the issues raised about it and the juvenile justice system.

The briefings were prepared in anticipation of questions in parliament, including specifically whether he was aware of the children’s commissioner’s report into the incident.

Background information provided to Scullion included details from that report, as well as media articles, police statements, and the Vita review into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory.

It included specific mentions of alleged breaches of the Youth Justice Act, including the transfer of a 14-year-old to the adult prison, and allegations that juveniles were coerced into fighting and into eating bird faeces.

The opposition leader told Guardian Australia the documents revealed that “despite being briefed several times over several months, the minister was completely indifferent to what was going on.”

“He knew about it. He just didn’t care enough to act,” Shorten said.

“It’s not good enough. He shouldn’t be in the job.”

In the days after the broadcast, which included some previously unpublished footage as well as some that had been public, Scullion told the media: “I wish I’d known what I know today, or I knew yesterday afternoon, some time ago, but the facts of the matter were I didn’t know.”

When asked at the time how he didn’t know, he conceded it was his “patch” but “the last time, just for clarity, I can recall back in October, vaguely, last year, there was some commentary in the media about this, but it was all about ‘this has all been taken care of’, ‘there is another investigation and we are adopting recommendations’ and that sort of thing.

“And I made an assumption … that the Northern Territory government were taking care of this matter and that I didn’t take any further action in that.”

The following month he said he had received a briefing but that it did not include the full contents of the commissioner’s report or its findings on the use of force and that children were deemed “at risk”, or that the Giles government amendments to the Youth Justice Act were widening the use of mechanical restraints.

The minister on Thursday said his shock had been at the footage, not the report of the incident.

“Minister Scullion has already acknowledged his office received briefing information about the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre going back to 2015,” a spokesman said in a statement to Guardian Australia.

He said a freedom of information search recovered the briefings, and that they “importantly” did not reference “the graphic footage broadcast by the ABC Four Corners program.”

However, much of the footage broadcast by Four Corners is described, and in some instances transcribed, within the children’s commissioner’s report which the briefings referenced.

Scullion declined to be interviewed.

“The Coalition government has acted decisively to establish a royal commission to forensically examine the workings of the Northern Territory’s youth detention system,” said the statement.

“Minister Scullion was involved in the decision to establish the royal commission, and the important thing now is to let it get on with its job without any outside interference.”

The statement said Scullion was committed to working with First Australians to address underlying causes of youth incarceration, and had offered to work with the NT government in addressing them.

The revelations come as four of the detainees who were teargassed during the incident continue a civil suit against the NT government, claiming damages for alleged assault and battery.

A royal commission into the protection and detention of juveniles in the NT will hold its first public hearing next month in Darwin.


Helen Davidson in Darwin

The GuardianTramp

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