The Hon Margaret White AO and Mick Gooda delivered the Human Rights Day Oration in Sydney last night, to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The event also marked one year since the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
Margaret White told the gathering that significant steps have been taken, but that many changes still need to occur.
“It would be trite and untrue to say that such fundamental reform has been smooth. As we recognised in our report, change, if it’s to be enduring, takes time.
“The roadmap for change developed by the Northern Territory government is ambitious, it is costly and not all voters find it compelling or indeed interesting.
“The current government has until mid-2020 to demonstrate the effectiveness of its programs,” Margaret White said.
She described the tri-partite forum with Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments and the Aboriginal community as ground-breaking, but said it will require commitment, generosity and humility to succeed.
The former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said the Royal Commission had had a profound effect on him.
“You can’t go in one end and come out the other unchanged.
“I was naive, to think everyone was on the same page. That the lawyers representing the kids and those representing the government were there to uncover what happened and what went wrong.
“But I worked out that lawyers from the Northern Territory government weren’t that interested in finding out what went wrong. They were only interested in protecting the government.
“If I sound bitter, I am bitter about it. Because we sat there and listened. These were kids who were put through a system, put through the ringer,” Mick Gooda said.
Since the Royal Commission, legislative amendments have been made to prohibit the use of restraints and limit the use of force, isolation and strip searches for children in detention.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility has been accepted by the Queensland government and in-principle by the Northern Territory government, however it was highlighted that Australia is still lagging by international standards.
Margaret White said the notorious high security unit was not closed down immediately as recommended and other reforms hadn’t been fully implemented.
“The newly recruited youth justice officers have not stayed the course. Police, so essential to the diversion model, are not always embracing the intent of the youth engagement training model,” she said.
Both Margaret White and Mick Gooda expressed disappointment that their recommendation for the Medicare system to be expanded, to allow children in detention to access a range of specialist services, had been rejected.
The National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell, who was the first witness at the Royal Commission, thanked Mick Gooda and Margaret White for their work.
“The NT Royal Commission was the result of significant hard work on the part of both of these Commissioners, and their staff.
“I believe it is a critical piece of work, with a set of comprehensive and practical recommendations, that will hopefully lead to real change for kids in the Northern Territory,” Commissioner Mitchell said.
A video recording of the Human Rights Day Oration is available on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Facebook page.