By KIERAN FINNANE
UPDATED, 27 April 2017, 5pm. See at bottom for an account of Mr Elferink’s unredacted statement.
John Elferink, former NT Corrections Minister, has raised in his statement to the Royal Commission “trenchant criticism” of how he was dealt with by the ABC’s Four Corners and of the calibre of the story Australia’s Shame.
Left: Mr Elferink takes his oath this morning.
Within a week of the airing of the program last July, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the appointment of the Royal Commission.
Although Mr Elferink’s statement, as released to the media after it was tendered in the course of this morning’s proceedings, has been redacted, this material will be put before the commission.
Counsel Assisting Peter Morrissey SC was at first concerned about the commission receiving the material. He said it does expose an arguable case for grievance on behalf of Mr Elferink but it could generate a lengthy and distracting side issue.
He also noted that the ABC is not at present legally represented at the commission, but has indicated it would object to the tendering of this material and he proposed to defer a decision on whether it would ultimately be received.
However by the time the commission broke for lunch today, he said he was being “overly fussy” and that the material was “capable of some relevance”, withdrawing any objection.
He said it would appear likely that ABC might seek to put some responsive material, but that is a matter for them.
Mr Elferink is represented at the commission by Andrew Harris QC. He had already accepted deferral but said he would ultimately argue for the material’s relevance to the commission.
Mr Harris said the material was not intended as a distraction, however the broadcast had been unarguably woven into the commission.
To date there has been no treatment of what happened – Mr Elferink was interviewed for five to six hours by the ABC, making available a “warts and all” account of what had occurred and was occurring in the detention system, yet most of the interview had not found its way into their report.
Commissioner Margaret White had commented to Mr Morrissey that the Four Corners program is referred to in nearly every (media) report about the commission: “Like it or not, it is a reference point”.
She noted the “pretty strong words” Mr Elferink was using in the statement and said ABC would need to be heard.
Mr Elferink’s unredacted statement has now been released. It is less of an attack than anticipated by the comments of counsel and Commissioner White this morning.
He complains of a lack of balance in the Four Corners report, despite the assurances by reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna that it would be balanced.
He says: “I was not trying to limit any report to favourable coverage or immunise the operations of Corrections in the Territory from criticism but I made it clear to her that I would not grant her request if what she intended to do was some sort of ‘hatchet job on NT Corrections.”
He wanted to see “historical negatives” balanced by acknowledgement of improvements such as Sentenced to a Job and SEED “of which the Government was justly proud”.
He says Ms Meldrum-Hanna told him, in words to the effect, that “she was bound by the highest editorial and journalistic standards in the country because she worked for the ABC and its flagship program Four Corners.”
However, the program broadcast was “the antithesis of a balanced report” and it was “misleading”. For example, there was vision of alleged assaults on detainees but no information about the accused officers being criminally prosecuted and acquitted. Moreover, the vision was never put to him, and he therefore had not had an opportunity to point this out.
“I did however repeatedly point out that my policy was to insist that any such matters which were brought to my attention had to be taken to the police. That is what I told [Children’s Commissioner Dr Howard] Bath in 2014 and it is the approach which I took throughout the time that I was Minister”.
He contrasts the language Ms Meldrum-Hanna used to described the tear-gassing on 21 August 2014 – it “beggars belief” – with Justice Kelly’s in recent Supreme Court civil proceedings, that this response was justified by the circumstances on the night and was lawful.
Says Mr Elferink: “[The incident] was presented by the ABC in a way which was calculated to have maximum sensationalist impact and to wrongly portray it as the position which appertained in youth corrections in 2016. It gave no context to the unique circumstances which appertained in August 2014 and which did not appertain in 2016.”
By KIERAN FINNANE