It was a royal commission that from the very beginning had vocal opponents.
But no-one expected the very man who set the terms of reference to be one of them.
In his first hour in the witness box earlier this year, former chief minister Adam Giles answered “I don’t know” and “I don’t recall” more than 60 times.
His answers and manner appalled the heads of the inquiry.
“I don’t doubt that he was the most uncooperative witness we had,” former commissioner Mick Gooda said.
“In my view he completely abrogated his responsibilities as chief minister, and had the gall to sit there and say he was coming in to give evidence to make things better for Aboriginal kids in the NT.”
Former commissioner Margaret White told the ABC that the counsel assisting only has powers to compel witnesses to give evidence “up to a point”.
“You can’t actually make people say things if they don’t wish to,” she said.
“They can tell you they don’t recall, you can suggest — as counsel assisting did — that that was scarcely believable, but ultimately they will either answer or they will not.
“But he [Adam Giles] really was the only example of lack of cooperation with the terms of reference, which was somewhat astonishing considering he was the person who set the terms of reference.”
Astonished authorities could be ‘so stupid’
On the morning after the ABC’s Four Corners program broadcast its report into the treatment of Don Dale detainees, Mr Giles fronted Darwin media and appeared to dab tears away from his eyes.
Earlier that morning, he had spoken on the phone with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and together they agreed a royal commission was necessary.
One year later in the witness box, his position appeared to have changed dramatically.
Looking forward, Ms White questioned whether there was a political will to learn the lessons from failings in the youth detention and child protection systems.
“I think it was the astonishment that people in power could be so — I’m going to use the word: ‘stupid’ — as to not find out what does and doesn’t work,” she said.
“The evidence from around the world was overwhelming about this system not working; it wasn’t as if it was a very recent phenomenon.
“It was quite well established, and I find it terribly depressing that those who get elected to high office seem disinterested in evidence-based solutions. That’s what I’m left with.”
Prosecutions privately recommended
While no criminal charges were recommended in the report, the royal commission’s findings did state the commission referred “a number” of matters to the Northern Territory Police.
Those referrals were said to include potential criminal conduct by youth justice officers.
But the ABC can reveal the royal commission did privately recommend prosecutions be made.
“We did recommend that certain matters be investigated by police,” Ms White said.
“Needless to say, they’re not articulated in the report, because you don’t want to compromise any police investigations, so we’ll say that up front: we did make a number of recommendations for prosecutions.”
Commissioners hopeful about future of youth justice
The $54 million-dollar royal commission found that the current conditions inside the NT’s youth detention centres are “wholly inappropriate, oppressive”, and “detrimental to the prospect of rehabilitation of youth”.
Mick Gooda said he and co-commissioner Margaret White put human rights at the centre of their recommendations.
“I think Margaret and I worked at producing a report that was a little bit different — one that thought about implementation right from the start, and therefore we had a lot of engagement with the Territory Government on the way through.
“That’s fairly unusual for royal commissions; governments generally sit back and wait. So we’re confident the Territory Government is right across what we’re recommending.”
Ms White said they saw the recommendations unfolding over a ten-year time frame.
“The early intervention benefits will gradually filter through all the way up, but the urgent things need to happen in the detention centres right now,” she said.
One of the “urgent things” she said needed to change was the use of isolation cells as both a behaviour management tool and as a treatment option for children and youth threatening self-harm.
“There isn’t any psychiatrist or psychologist who we heard from who could possibly support isolation as a coherent or appropriate means of behaviour management,” Ms White said.
“It didn’t work, they knew it didn’t work, but they persisted in doing it.”
The ABC understands the use of isolation continues in certain circumstances, but youth detainees in isolation are now accompanied by a healthcare professional.