“Left hanging by its silence is how the government proposes to respond to the fact that the inspector of Corrections has formally reported that two laws, the Corrections Management Act and the Human Rights Act, have been breached,” writes political columnist JON STANHOPE.
THE silence of every member of the ACT’s Labor/Greens governing majority following the tabling of an excoriating report by the ACT inspector of Correctional Services, Neil McAllister, into the forcible strip search of a young and extremely vulnerable Aboriginal woman, being held on remand in the Alexander Maconochie Centre, evokes Elton John’s famous lyric: “sorry seems to be the hardest word”.
The woman in question, her name is Julianne, lives with multiple and potentially life-threatening illnesses affecting her heart and lungs. She has a pacemaker. She is also a survivor of sexual assault and has mental health issues. At the time she was strip searched she was experiencing deep grief at the recent death of her grandmother whose funeral AMC management had refused her permission to attend.
I have known Julianne for several years. I consider her a friend and unlike the ACT government I have not turned my back on her.
In his damning report, the inspector found, among other things, that Julianne’s treatment was “highly degrading and traumatising” and a clear breach of the ACT’s Human Rights Act. He separately found that the Corrections Management Act had also been breached.
Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman released a statement on behalf of the government, ie all sitting members of the Labor and Greens parties, following the tabling of the inspector’s report in the Legislative Assembly.
The Minister chose not to comment at all on the treatment meted out to Julianne at the hands of his government. In fact, he did not mention her name or existence let alone what had been done to her. He did not express any contrition or regret at the “highly degrading and traumatising” treatment she was forced to endure or that her human rights were breached. He did not apologise. He did not say sorry. Neither did a single member of the government – Labor or Greens.
They chose instead to congratulate themselves, despite the very public exposure of their appalling treatment of this extremely vulnerable Aboriginal woman, and to boast about their magnanimity in ordering the purchase of a body scanner to minimise the use, in the future, of strip searches at the AMC.
Mr Gentleman concluded his statement on behalf of his Labor and Greens colleagues not, as one might have expected, with an apology or an expression of regret at the treatment meted out to Julianne and other detainees in the AMC including the breaching of their human rights, but by acknowledging instead AMC staff, including presumably those involved in the issues reported on by the inspector of Corrections. He said: “I’d like to thank the committed staff within ACT Corrective Services for their professionalism and dedication.”
Dedication and commitment to what exactly is not clear, but regardless of the circumstances that necessitated the making of the statement let’s hope the Minister did not mean to strip searching vulnerable Aboriginal women in breach of their human rights.
To be blunt I find it hard to believe that such a callous and tone-deaf response to such a scarifying report could have originated in the Minister’s office.
An issue left hanging as a result of the government’s silence is how it proposes to respond to the fact that the relevant statutory officer in this matter, the inspector of Corrections has formally reported that the law, in fact two laws, the Corrections Management Act and the Human Rights Act have been breached. Who, for instance, is to be held accountable for that and for how long and under how many Ministers have these laws been broken?
Under the Westminster system of government, which applies in the ACT, there are occasions, for example, when Ministers must accept personal responsibility for breaches of the law that occur in organisations or agencies for which they have administrative responsibility.
It is not unusual, where an agency has breached the law or other accepted standards of governance, that the responsible Minister or Ministers will, consistent with the Westminster conventions, resign or be sacked.
That was certainly the position adopted by the ACT Labor Party in relation to issues related to the development of Bruce Stadium under then Liberal Chief Minister Kate Carnell when the Liberal Party was last in government, and one assumes it continues to hold to that position.
It is also surely relevant in considering how the breaches of the law identified by the inspector of Corrections should be dealt with that the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has demanded that Christian Porter resign not just from the ministry but from parliament, for allegedly breaching not the law but a non-legally binding ministerial standard.
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