Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White during a tour of Don Dale. Photo: Elise Derwin Dylan Voller at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Photo: ABC Four Corners
The first hour of gripping testimony alone by Dylan Voller vindicated Malcolm Turnbull’s snap decision to call the child detention royal commission and put a human face to a national scandal.
In clear, succinct and mostly detached responses, the 19-year-old has painted a horrid picture of institutionalised cruelty in a system hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with those supposedly in its care.
It is one thing to see the shocking, stark image of a boy shackled to a chair in a spit hood, an image that belongs in some other country and another age.
Or the grainy footage of a group of child detainees being tear-gassed in a detention centre.
Or to hear testimony from experts about systematic failures in a juvenile justice system, overwhelmingly and increasingly populated by Indigenous offenders, over many decades.
But it is another altogether to hear that boy, now a young man serving a sentence in an adult jail, tell his story of a young life in detention in calm answers, punctuated by blinking eyes and an involuntary shoulder twitch.
The only moment his composure is threatened is not when he revisits an almost endless catalogue of shocking physical degradations and deprivations, but when he recalls the taunt of the case worker who told him his family did not care for him.
That is when his eyes welled, his voice faltered, and counsel assisting the commission, Peter Callaghan SC, offered a respite from questions that was politely declined.
“For a long time I started believing it, I guess,” he said of the taunt, before making it plain that he did not believe it now. That would have come as some relief to members of his family in the body of the court.
The impression is of a person ashamed of the very bad things he has done, who has been let down by the system from the age of 10. It is of a young man in an ill-fitting suit and too-big shirt with nothing to hide, a young man who is not seeking retribution, but to spare others his experience.
To those who say this is about things done in the past, the message is that it is about what was happening right now, in both the juvenile and the adult justice systems.
There is no doubt that many of the things Voller described will be contested by those in positions of responsibility, but it is difficult to consider him as anything but a credible witness. Certainly, that seemed to be commissioner Mick Gooda’s impression when he thanked Voller for his testimony and his bravery in coming forward.
And it is more difficult to avoid the conclusion that Voller’s experience is the experience of many others; that change on multiple levels, in systems and in attitudes, is urgently required.
The Prime Minister’s decision to call this royal commission was branded too hasty by Tony Abbott because it came as an almost knee-jerk response to a Four Corners investigation, amid complaints that the expose lacked balance and the story was not new.
“Normally governments should not respond in panic at TV programs,” Abbott said. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, went further, saying the program was “unprofessional” and used the same word to describe Turnbull’s decision to call a royal commission.
Now it is those judgments that are revealed as utterly ill-considered and premature.
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