Andrew Bolt has a point, but …

dondaleIt’s not often that I agree with hyper-ventilating Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt, but his column this week on the Don Dale Centre juvenile detention controversy is a useful antidote to the equally hyperbolic reactions of most commentators to ABC journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s Four Corners exposure of practices in NT Corrections.

However, as usual with Bolt, his column is grossly tendentious and makes even less attempt than Meldrum-Hanna’s Four Corners episode to present a fair and balanced analysis of the issues.

In an immediate sense, Bolt’s column completely ignores the 2014 tear-gassing of six boys, five of whom were confined in their cells and not causing any form of trouble. That incident was explained at the time by false claims that the tear-gassing had been necessitated by a “riot”. Even if Minister Elferink was initially misled by Corrections Commissioner Ken Middletonbrook, the misinformation was not publicly corrected even after it emerged that the alleged “riot” was a self-serving fabrication. Moreover, the fact that Elferink has recently appointed Middletonbrook (who now lives and works interstate) to a “community” position on the NT Parole Board suggests the CLP government was relatively unconcerned by Middletonbrook’s actions.

More importantly, the tear-gassing incident was apparently triggered after the 6 boys concerned had been held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day for a period of several weeks. Hardly surprising that one of them snapped and broke out of his cell. This sort of treatment of juvenile detainees is completely unacceptable almost irrespective of their prior conduct.  Those events justify a royal commission in themselves, despite the undoubted improvements effected in the Corrections portfolio under Minister Elferink, and despite the fact that quite a few of the disturbing events depicted in footage aired on Four Corners actually occurred under the previous Labor administration.

Even more importantly, the depicted events flow largely from an extreme “law and order” mentality perpetuated both by the current CLP government and its Labor predecessor. Too many young offenders are put in detention when other approaches would not only be more humane but would almost certainly yield better results and lower recidivism. Unfortunately, successive NT governments have been more interested in pandering to the intellectual lowest common denominator of the NT population for cynical electoral purposes than in developing more effective crime prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs. The policy of detention/imprisonment as a last resort is not a “bleeding heart” approach, it is an essential underpinning to more effective strategies that will reduce crime rates in the long term.

The NT lacks significant early intervention programs with troubled youth and their families, and there is an almost complete absence of diversionary programs for young offenders (especially in remote communities) that could serve as a viable and superior alternative to imprisonment. Even when there is no alternative to detention (which will unavoidably be the case for some repeat offenders), there is a major lack of facilities, resources and trained personnel to deal with the serious behavioural disturbances exhibited by a high proportion of detainees. In many cases that behaviour is fuelled by mental illness and/or drug addiction. The evidently grossly excessive use of restraint chairs and prolonged confinement in isolation cells flows directly from the lack of suitable facilities, resources and trained personnel able to deal effectively with radically disturbed young offenders. I hope the royal commission examines these deeper underlying issues, although its terms of reference give little basis for optimism.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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28 Responses to Andrew Bolt has a point, but …

  1. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    I don’t get what you agree with Bolt about. It is pretty easy to decipher what you disagree with him about but not what you agree on .

    • Ken Parish says:

      Most if not all of what Bolt says in his article is true as far as it goes, but it’s grossly one-sided and selective. I’m not sure how much clearer I could be …

      • John R walker says:

        Ken it seems to be behind a paywall.

        In general was hoping you might give more insights into the actual incidents that triggered the 4corners show and the reaction etc

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        Bolt made one or two points, but he is just so contemptuous of the ABC and the left that he is not worth reading. You have to check every fact yourself, and especially the facts he leaves out.

        The worst aspect of the public reaction to this, is the insistence on seeing it as a racial problem. Yes, aborigines are over-represented in the system but having watched the footage, there was no racial element I could see. Four corners had access to many hours of footage. Not once did the officers refer to the kids with racial epithets. Not one mention of the work nigger or coon. And we can be 100% sure that if these words were anywhere on the tape it would have been replayed 100 times and would have 1000,000 hits on Youtube by now. For sure, the officers never used this language and since the tapes are pretty much continuous coverage of their work, they do not use such words, which would suggest that they do not have such attitudes.

        Their attitude to young men who are damaged and suffering is quite another matter.

        The worst aspect of Don Dale to me were the actually conditions and length of solitary imposed. This is surely a form of torture. The worst scenes to me were where the kid gets wacked for talking on the phone for too long, where 14 year old Dylan Voller (who looks white to me) gets thrown onto the bed, a later gets stripped naked for no apparent reason. Bolt has little to say about this. This is the same guy who gets manacled and hooded three years later. But of all the scenes, that one troubled me the least. Listen yourself. The guards speak to him quite kindly and try to settle him down. They might have removed the spit hood, but perhaps they thought it would calm him down. But of course, the look of him chained to the chair with a hood invites too many comparisons with abu graib for the press to resist.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          I think you make an extremely good point about racism Chris. But of course if it’s not racism, we can’t get a culture war out of it, and then where would we be? Thinking for ourselves I guess. Trying to figure out what’s going on on the merits.

  2. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    so you disagree with him as most of the articles shows.

    Not very clear at all Ken!

  3. Pappinbarra Fox says:

    Not having read the Bolt article (I don’t have that many spare minutes left in my life to waste and cause me self aggravation) I still cannot tell what point you think Bolt has (that most of what he says is true is NOT a point, that is just facts. So I’d say Ken Parish has a point but … it aint all that clear.

  4. derrida derider says:

    [Bolt’s column]. is a useful antidote to the equally hyperbolic reactions of most commentators …

    I too can’t see your point, Ken. On the one hand you complain about teh Left exaggerating, but then go on to outline in detail stuff which any reasonable person should be horrified by, and which certainly justifies a “sensational” report or two needed to bring those responsible to account.

    Bolt’s column looks to me like a bog-standard piece of ABC-bashing, which in turn is just part of his usual hippy punching schtick. Is that an occupation you intend taking up in your crusty dotage?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I’m afraid I agree with others’ comments Ken and what they’ve written was my first thought before I’d read any of them.

      I don’t want to be too categorical about this of course, but I guess on balance I’m against torturing children almost all of the time.

  5. paul frijters says:

    I couldn’t read the Bolt article, so without the ability to know what Ken is likely to be agreeing with, I am going to suspend any judgment and say that everything that Ken says after the ‘Bolt’ paragraph sounds reasonable to me!

    Whilst it is of course a reasonable suggestion of a lawyer to advocate the spending of tens of millions of dollars on other lawyers, I am not sure about the Royal Commission thing. There must be cheaper and more effective ways to research these things in our society. Surely a competent civil servant could sort this out much quicker and at, say, 1/100th of the price? I am not joking when I saw I am willing to bet Nicholas would do a pretty good job for a few hundred thousand.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I forgot to make the Royal Commission point. And of course modesty would have forbidden me from making it in quite the way Paul has above. Then again it’s that damn modesty that prevents me from disagreeing with anything he’s said.

    (Including the orders of magnitude suggested). Royal Commissions are a scandal. The dysfunctional in pursuit of the disreputable.

  7. john Walker says:

    Questions I want to ask are things like : prison cells where the only drinking water is in the toilet, is that true? and if so, how in the F did that happen?

  8. Peter WARWICK says:

    Try this:

    AN astonishing letter from the ABC proves it knowingly left out critical information when suggesting the Northern Territory Government tortured children in detention.

    The letter, from Four Corners reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna, shows the ABC misled a key interviewee about what it planned to report and praised prison reforms it then didn’t mention on air.

    The letter also confirms Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was a fool to let the Four Corners report panic him into calling a royal commission only 10 hours later.

    Here is clear evidence that the ABC is out of control, demonstrating a bias that — with Turnbull’s naive help — will now destroy the NT Country Liberal Party Government.

    Three weeks ago Four Corners screened a highly emotional report claiming juveniles in detention in the NT were being abused.

    This report, a month before the NT elections, opened with a shot of a young man being shackled by guards to a chair and with what seemed a bag over his head.

    The ABC failed to tell viewers this hood was mesh and used to prevent the guards being spat on.

    Host Sarah Ferguson then made clear that this was torture of the kind infamously demonstrated at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail: “The image you have just seen isn’t from Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib but Australia in 2015 … This is juvenile justice in the Northern Territory, a system that punishes troubled children instead of rehabilitating them.”

    I’ve written before that much of what you were told was false or outrageously one-sided.

    The ABC failed to tell viewers the young man being strapped down, Dylan Voller, was not being tortured but restrained after threatening to hurt himself.

    The ABC failed to tell viewers the hood was a mesh to stop him spitting on guards, as he’d done hundreds of times. And it failed to give a true picture of Voller’s background.

    It glossed over the threat he posed, claiming: “Voller has been in and out of juvenile detention since he was 11 years old for car theft, robberies and, more recently, assault.”

    False. The ABC failed to tell viewers that Voller’s first convictions for assault actually dated back seven years and that of his more than 50 convictions, 23 were for assault or other attempts to hurt people, often police and warders.

    There was much more the ABC also did not tell. It had shown another confronting scene of Voller being wrestled to a mattress by guards, but did not tell viewers that one guard had been charged with using undue force and been twice cleared, once the courts was told the context.

    Nor did the ABC tell viewers that this incident — presented as an attack, of a kind still continuing — actually occurred six years ago, under a Labor government.

    Crucially, as former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett detailed, the ABC also did not tell viewers that the current CLP Government had recently spent more than $20 million on reforming juvenile detention and had appointed a new Corrections Commissioner to oversee the changes.

    Instead, Four Corners presented the CLP Government as a torturer and its Attorney-General and then corrections minister, John Elferink, as a Harley-riding cowboy blind to the abuse under his nose.

    But now comes Meldrum-Hanna’s letter — and now we know how brazenly the ABC worked to make this report so savagely one-sided.

    Meldrum-Hanna, who did that Four Corners report, on June 2 wrote to Elferink pleading for him to show her the juvenile detention centre.

    That letter, obtained by my Sky News colleague, Matt Cunningham, shows — in my opinion — that Elferink was tricked by the ABC.
    Andrew Bolt writes that much of what viewers were told was false or outrageously one-sided.
    Meldrum-Hanna told Elferink what her later report never said — that “based on our research, the NT Government is proactively trying to make things better for juveniles in detention”.

    The letter lists many reforming initiatives — again, not mentioned in the Four Corners report — including “Sentenced to a Job, in-prison education programs, reducing reoffending rates, restraining the growth of prisoners … barbecues being planned in Don Dale to teach the juveniles about cooking … child protection reviews … and a new Corrections Commissioner appointed”.

    It also acknowledged that the detained juveniles had been moved out of the old prison later shown in the most damning Four Corners footage. Gushed Meldrum-Hanna to Elferink, who had overseen these reforms: “Minister Elferink, this is a significant legacy. It is also your legacy.”

    So the ABC knew. It knew huge reforms had been made to juvenile justice, yet the program that Turnbull and hundreds of thousands of Australians watched suggested the exact opposite.

    Take this exchange from the program:

    Meldrum-Hanna: As early as 2012 … the government knew of excessive force, inappropriate solitary confinement of children in detention?

    Dr Howard Bath (former NT children’s commissioner): Yes.

    Meldrum-Hanna: And nothing was done?

    Bath: As far as I know nothing was done.

    Then this:

    Meldrum-Hanna: The mistreatment of children has continued.

    This is simply astonishing.

    In a telephone conversation she taped before the filming, Meldrum-Hanna also repeatedly assured Elferink he would not be burned and he could trust her to tell his story.

    She even boasted to Elferink in her letter that: “We (at the ABC) are not interested in ‘gotcha moments’.”

    Yet Elferink claims (although Four Corners denies) the ABC even asked him to ride his Harley-Davidson motorbike to the jail. That footage was then used at length to make Elferink seem a lair more interested in his bike than his duties.

    On it went. In her letter, Meldrum-Hanna asked Elferink to let the ABC into the detention centre because “closing the doors on us means we cannot … give a voice to the dedicated officers and staff in Corrections who work very hard”.

    Yet all that Four Corners showed of these “dedicated officers and staff in Corrections who work very hard” was footage wildly out of context of some acting violently.

    And this:

    Meldrum-Hanna:Four Corners has learnt the children were being cared for (in the Behavioural Management Unit) by a core group of prison officers, highly trained in professional fighting.

    Seriously? That’s it? Juvenile centre workers are all thugs or highly trained in “professional fighting”?

    Four Corners denies any bias. Executive producer Sally Neighbour has said claims that the story was timed to cause political damage were “false, outrageous and desperate” and Meldrum-Hanna told ABC radio Elferink was given a fair hearing.

    I don’t buy it. The ABC has shown outrageous bias and almost certainly has helped to destroy another conservative government — the CLP Government, now facing heavy defeat at next week’s NT election.

    It will also have smeared a reforming minister, John Elferink, who has since faced death threats and has had to leave his home.

    And, of course, it conned the Prime Minister, who must now have proved to his colleagues that he trusts the ABC too readily for the Liberals’ own good — and for Australia’s.

    Order Andrew’s new book, Bolt — Worth Fighting For at

  9. Bill Posters says:

    The casual en passant smear of the 4C episode is disgusting. What exactly is the problem with the piece? None is revealed in this post, yet the show is nonetheless sledged as less than fair and balanced, with no reasons given why.

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for posting the article Peter,

    I think Bolt lands plenty of punches. I can now see where Ken is coming from and agree with him. I really detest the way the media – have to spoon feed the audience about who the goodies and the baddies are. Obviously it’s shocking and terrible for kids to be tortured. But the story would be more, not less powerful (for me anyway) if it also presented the evidence that Bolt suggests exists that those perpetrating what are terrible crimes (even if they won’t be prosecuted for them) don’t seem to be monsters.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    We can’t read. It’s behind a paywall.

    • john Walker says:

      Its too long to cut and paste – its this weekends edition, covers the long runing awful colonialist (and venal) reality of NT ‘government’.
      There is also a good piece from Nicholas Rothwell on new book on Wave hill station .

    • John R walker says:

      It is literaly impossible to copy on my iPad
      General tone is summed by :

      “Lawrie is adamant that the CLP’s travails in office began with the partyroom coup against Mills. Yet that’s only part of the story of what’s gone wrong in the Territory with the debasement of its politics and processes of government. As The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell argued on these pages in a searing 2009 expose of the “failed state in our midst”, the Territory can best be understood as an “interlocking set of interest groups”.

      The veteran correspondent wrote presciently: “On the face of things, all the standard attributes of a democratic society are present here in Darwin: a parliament, political parties, government departments, a range of key social institutions that look much like their southern equivalents. But in fact … it is heavily dependent on outside funding, the bureaucracy is shot through with politics, almost all medium-sized business relies on public sector contracts and the whole system is founded on the administration of an Aboriginal underclass.”

      Two elections on and not much has changed — except for some of the personnel clinging to the merry-go-round of government.”

      • Marks says:

        Well, yes. But is the governance of other states so much better? I’m thinking of you Eddie Obeid, and the current light rail being built as prime examples in NSW. Or have Queensland and WA improved since Joh and Burke? SA and the State Bank disaster?

        Nope. Glass house and stones when it comes to governance. But then I do not expect anything better from the Australian.

        • john Walker says:

          Sure , however suspect there is one significant difference, in the NT the government sector is virtually the only game in town- is most of the economy.

        • Marks says:

          Hi John,

          If the Australian report had left it at that, there would have been no quibble from me.

          However, adding in governance issues which don’t seem all that bad in the NT compared with those in NSW, QLD and SA over the past few decades is where the Australian demonstrates its unfitness to any claim to being a “quality” newspaper. I mean, NSW, apart from the corruption, can’t even run buses efficiently, trains on time, or build a simple tramline without it being a monumental cock-up. One does not need to look to the NT to find failed states, by the criteria of the Australian.

          Further, the Australian mentions indigenous issues. With the largest proportion of indigenous people, and with the huge challenges facing indigenous people, it’s hardly a surprise that this is a bigger issue in the NT than in other states. If a self aggrandising “veteran” reporter “presciently” stating the bleeding obvious consequence of demographics constitutes quality journalism in Australia, then I am not in the least surprised by the death spiral in circulation it is experiencing.

  12. rog says:

    AFAIK the ABC neglected to inform that subsequent to the events portrayed there was an enquiry (headed by Michael Vita) and the department has accepted and implemented the finding of that enquiry. To also muddy the waters the original Don Dale facility was closed and a newer one opened, also called Don Dale.

    But as Ken says there appears to exist an extreme law and order mentality which the ABC successfully demonstrated.

    The immediacy of the response by Turnbull was appropriate given the scale of the perceived problem but the nature of the response, to hire more lawyers, has its own limitations.

    As for Bolt..

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