What the meaning of Don Dale Is

The prison’s survival is a measure of our country’s moral decline.

Another gloomy dispatch from the North advising readers on the continuing and deteriorating situation relating to the abuse of First Nations children within the Northern Territory’s legal system.

The Don Dale ‘dungeons’ continue to hold First Nations children, some as young as ten, in unlawful and barbaric conditions. 100 per cent of those children are First Nations, with 70 per cent of them rotting on remand. ‘Australia’s Shame’ continues unabated. The latest available figures on self-harm committed by children in the Don Dale dungeons, from the period January to June 2022, tell us there were ninety-four incidents with four children hospitalised. The figures for the previous six-month period—July to December 2021—were fifty-four incidents with one hospitalisation, and January to June 2021 eight incidents with no hospitalisations.

We all know where this is going to end, but no one seems to care. It’s a runaway train with no driver.

The kids are coming

Meanwhile, the whole country has been watching First Nations children from the Centre take it to the streets in Alice Springs. The media reports, replete with iPhone vision, describe high levels of break-ins, stolen cars being used to run amok in the city centre and various instances of street violence. The media have swooped, inflated the situation and exploited it for their own political and ratings purposes. The Australian public eats this up and becomes angered and more anxious, following which the politicians step in to try and curry favour while avoiding criticism and blame. This tawdry cycle of corrosive news reportage has, as usual, only led to a worsening of the situation.

The media will view this as their triumph, as their handiwork has led to an actual response from the Australian prime minister to, in their words, ‘the Crisis’. On 23 January, Prime Minister Albanese, with his federal caravan, including the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney, Senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy, MP Marion Scrymgour and advisers, flew in for ‘crisis talks’ concerning ‘the desperate situation’, meeting with the NT Chief Minister and other NT political heavyweights. This was followed by a ‘presser’, with a spokesperson at the front offering nothing except the predictable ‘grog bans’ and delivering hollow platitudes about ‘addressing underlying issues’, with Labor nodding-heads standing as one behind. There should have been a caption underneath reading ‘We caused this and we can’t fix it’.

This so-called crime crisis is the harvest of their and previous governments’ neglect: they are responsible for it, and if there’s one thing the record shows it’s that they won’t fix a thing. Government seriously doesn’t know how, and its ‘will’ is, as usual, fleeting. This is thirty years of neoliberalism’s distinctly punitive approach to marginal groups and the institutional degradation it set in train bearing its predictable fruit. It illustrates that the current polity is incapable of and has little will for addressing the ever-growing ills that bedevil contemporary society. This certainly applies to the issue of juvenile crime in Alice Springs, Katherine, Darwin and elsewhere.

The Voice

These First Nations kids in Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin, and the ones being abused in Don Dale, are going to have more of an effect on the future of this country than the Voice.. They are the Voice, and they are loud and increasingly effective. They emerge from their Australian lives and their world which has given them no education, no future and the constant message that, like their parents and their parents’ parents, they don’t belong and are unwelcome. They live in a world built around the premise that they have no place in it.

The great slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglas stated the obvious when he said that ‘Power will never relinquish but by a struggle’. The contemporary English philosopher John Gray repeats the mantra: ‘Conflict rather than discussion is the basis of social change’. Most Australians balk at such a remedy. Struggle? No thanks.

But for thirty years the NT legal system and the rights and living conditions of First Nations people have been in decline. Those are the facts; that is the reality. Never mind the ever-growing number of First Nations ‘successes’ appearing nightly on ABC television programs. That is not reality. Don Dale is reality. Alice Springs is reality. Banksia Hill is reality.

The people responsible for this reality are our politicians, their advisers, the bureaucrats and many of the representative bodies for First Nations people which have become co-opted into this malaise. This regression in modern-day Australia is unforgivable, and there is no tenable reason or excuse for it to have occurred in our lifetime. Closing the Gap figures, incarceration figures, Deaths in Custody figures, First Nations education and health figures all shout out failure. Deterioration and getting worse! Royal commissions, coronial inquests, state and federal parliaments, state and federal departments have failed. And what we get from them and their close media associations is the same narrative: the ‘Voice’; recommendations; reviews; terms of reference, when what is needed is awareness and education, and a profound engagement with First nations people on the ground.

The kids who tried to burn Don Dale down in September 2018 produced the most progressive development in NT juvenile justice in the last twenty years. And that’s a fact. It would behove us all to remember the still relevant words of Martin Luther King that

A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

In my last article in June 2022, I pointed out the Close Don Dale Movement’s failure to have Don Dale closed. One feature that seemed relevant to this failure was the diminution of care that has occurred generally in Australia over the last thirty years.

The thirty-year decline

As with most other First World countries Australia has surely been going through a moral decline. It has come about through a combination of neoliberal hegemony, the rise of a more radical individualism and the general corrosion of truth. We have become dangerously dehumanised and drifted towards authoritarianism and, like the frog in the boiling water, we seem incapable of realising and preventing it. Denialism is everywhere, from climate change to our marked increase in racism to the ever-growing number of features in our society’s institutions that no longer work as they once did..

In Australia in particular, these features of the contemporary polity sit atop our settler-colonial blindness. More than most countries, we are renowned for burying and ignoring our colonial history—W. E. Stanner’s ‘Great Silence’. This is largely because shameful racism is central to much of that silence, which continues into the present day and finds new targets.. Try asserting that there’s widespread racism today and you’ll be shouted down. Remember what Australians did in 2017 to Brisbane woman Yassmin Abdel-Magied who posted on her personal Facebook page ‘LEST WE FORGET (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)’? She now lives in the United Kingdom. Ask Adam Goodes, who was howled into retirement by racist elements in AFL crowds, which were sometimes supported by the sporting media.

Eddie Maguire really did say and do these things and he remains a media kingpin. Ask Eddy Betts, who endured bananas being thrown at him while playing AFL football in Adelaide. Now compare that with the same demographic of Australians in 1995, when Essendon’s Michael Long took a physical stance against racism by attacking a Collingwood opponent who racially abused him during the first Anzac Day game. He was largely lauded by the Australian football and general community. What’s more, it led positively to anti-vilification rules in the AFL. Since then something has changed. The evidence in the current Kumanjayi Walker coronial inquest reveals the gross levels of racism in the NT Police Force in their text messages describing First Nations people as ‘niggers’, ‘Neanderthals’ and ‘bush-coons’. Can you believe it? And not one has been sacked. More evidence from the same Inquest (6/3/23) from Alice Springs First nations Woman Ms Leanne Liddle, the Director of the NT Government’s Aboriginal Justice Unit again describes the level of systemic racism within the NT Police Force.

Ms Liddle was tasked to inquire into how First Nation’s incarceration levels could be reduced.

She attested that; “I recall on one consult (what) a senior sergeant of a remote police station who, in front of his junior colleague, said to me when I asked him what he believed was the answer to reducing incarceration rates of Aboriginal people, he said; ‘The only hope you mob have is to stop breeding for the next 10-15 years.’

Ms. Liddle a former South Australian police officer went on in her evidence to state that her consultations in relation to her work in this area were “one of the most depressing and saddest experiences of my life”.

Meanwhile, while this evidence was being heard in the Alice Springs Coronial Inquest further evidence of racism was being exposed in the Darwin Supreme Court where the stood-down NT Children’s Commissioner Ms Colleen Gwynne (a former NT Police Officer) was being prosecuted before a Judge and jury for corruption.

The particulars of the charge were she had allegedly unlawfully interfered with her Office’s selection process relating to her friend and former NT police officer over her then Assistant Children’s Commissioner, First Nation’s woman Ms Nicole Huck. Part of the prosecution evidence was to include telephone conversations where Ms Gwynne refers to Ms Huck as a ‘fucking gin and a “fat gin.”as is happens, due to a legal technicality the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) dropped the charge on Day 4 of the trial. Ms Gwynne in her subsequent media statement admitted uttering the vile racist words and then apologized for the same! Only in the Territory? Maybe. Maybe not.

If this material doesn’t reveal that we’re going backward, nothing does. As I write this I’m reading about the evidence given in the Robodebt inquiry, which reveals what was done by whom to whom and why. Can anyone deny our moral standards have dropped?

Whenever commentators and politicians of whatever ilk come out with ‘Come on Australians, we are better than that’, they are actually wrong. The truth is we’re not better than that. We are that.

This moral decline has happened incrementally. Small and not-so-small steps have led to Australians becoming desensitised and less caring. At each stage, moral resistance fades.

As ethical norms declined most of us ‘went along with it’. We ‘got used to it’. We’ve become, or we’ve allowed ourselves to become, ‘normalised’. Or is it ‘complacent’, or ‘indifferent’, or ‘resigned’? Take your pick. The bottom line is that we now have a palpable deficit in our ‘care factor’.

Tolstoy made the telling observation on the great dangers of peer conformity in Anna Karenina: ‘There are no conditions of life to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him’.

Refugee policy

One of the larger steps instrumental in this journey of moral decline has been our government’s bipartisan, brutal and singular policy against refugees, which began thirty years ago and still continues. As it happens, this also involves the shameful abuse of children in custody. Australians appear to be a people who don’t care much for children. The levels of cruelty and dishonesty that make up this policy are staggering. It’s a policy presented by both major parties, and so has the approval of the majority of Australian voters. As a lawyer representing many asylum seekers brutalised by the policy, I have always been stunned by how a generally well-off, advanced and apparently progressive people ‘went along with’ such cruel policies against people who were innocent of any crime and were merely fleeing tyranny and danger, and asking us for help.

We have responded by treating them worse than criminals. We have put innocent men, women and children in offshore concentration camps and deliberately harmed and punished them. We have replaced their actual names with numbers, a well-known practice employed by the Nazis in relation to Jews and others during the Holocaust. In 2015 I represented a five-year-old Iranian girl and her parents. When I first met this child, sitting in the Darwin Detention Centre with her parents, I introduced myself and, through an interpreter, asked her name. She wrote it down for me in crayon: CAV-020, the abbreviation of her boat name and her very own number! Replacing actual names with numbers was and remains a deliberate psychological assault on the child and all the other refugees. But it’s also more. The theory is that this numbering dehumanises the victim, thus making it easier for Australian jailers to inflict suffering upon them. However, the process does have some reverse effects. The guards, the bureaucrats and also Australians informed about this are themselves, to a degree, dehumanised. Their care factor is diminished as they ‘become used to it’ and ‘go along with it’. They—we—become ‘bystanders’ and ‘ normalised’.

And so this goes. Over the last twenty years, Australia has held hundreds of nameless children in cruel and barbaric conditions on Nauru and Manus Island. Not to mention the thousands of men and women who, as a consequence, have suffered greatly and been permanently harmed by the policy. Throughout the entireperiod of ‘our’ policies, there have been suicides including self-immolations, homicides, self-harm and gross suffering, all caused by our policy as actioned by Australian employees. What’s more, over time through the media and as a result of strenuous activism by some, the horror of this part of Australian society has been highlighted and drawn to the attention of the Australian community, yet the policies continued unabated. No other country in the world has treated refugees in such a brutal and cruel way. We stick out. Most of it was reported and most Australians apparently remained comfortable with it; we, again, ‘went along with it’. Most Australians seem not to care. We are increasingly desensitised. Dehumanised. Uncaring.

The death of truth

Concomitant with this moral decline has been the corrosion of what used to be a prime virtue: truth. Still on Australia’s refugee policy, it has been falsely claimed by our representative politicians that it exists to stop smugglers from profiting and to save the lives of poor asylum seekers. Remember someone’s clever graffiti response to that claim? Fuck off we’re full. We’re deeply concerned about your safety at sea. The claim was yet another slippery political deceit. All of this has become par for the course: the corrosion of the truth factor, sometimes labelled ‘The post-truth age’. Political dishonesty has been assaulting all of us for years. ‘Weapons of mass destruction’ to unlawfully start our longest-ever war: total untruth. ‘Children overboard’, that deceit by Prime Minister Howard, Minister Ruddock and that whole dishonest Liberal crew. There are growing numbers of books giving a thorough account of the lies and falsehoods we’ve all been bombarded with by the media, politicians, the internet and that great one-eyed monster that sits in most people’s living rooms, the TV. NewsCorp and the others have deliberately misled the public for the last thirty years in order to misinform us and instil fear and prejudice in us. As well as to sell product. The decades of shrill bombardments from monstrous shock jocks coming at everyone out of the right-wing media outlets has worked a treat. Furthermore, rather than stopping it, politicians from both sides have exploited it for their own political and personal gain. It’s illustrated no better than by the fact that the most significant undisputed aspect of the ‘characters’ of our last Prime Minister, former British Prime Minister Johnson and the former American President is that they were all, and remain, inveterate and shameless liars.


The neoliberal orgy of the last thirty years has taken Planet Earth to the verge of extinction and in the process dehumanised many of us who ‘sail in her’. We have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest, and it has backfired. When your main religion becomes market forces that determine everything, there is little room for morality or ethics. Capitalism, unlike other religions, has no ethical component. ‘Buy cheap, sell dear’, Mr. Gradgrind told us in Dickens’s Hard Times. Then, more recently, during our thirty-year period of decline, we had Gordon Gecko’s ‘Greed is good’ and ‘Let the market rip’. Pursue self-interest and apparently we’ll all benefit. But the opposite has happened. Australians are economically worse off. They have less job security and less income amid a growing gap between the emerging underclass and the obscenely rich. Most Australians are under pressure and stress due to their various insecurities. And so here we are. A population riddled with mental disorders, namely stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression. Suicide rates escalating yearly. We have diminished our connectedness—the essence of our humanity—and we now live lives that are nasty, brutish and long. Many live in a state of joyless hedonism. We have become debased, and with it, desensitised.


Not only has the neoliberal hegemony encouraged self-centredness, Australian society has also in this same period, moved into having as our governing principle, individualism. This is probably the greatest cause of our dehumanisation and the decline in our empathy and care factor. This cultural shift and emphasis has happened over this same 30-year period. We’ve moved from encouraging self-effacement and humility to a culture of self-promotion. The clap-trap of “I’m special”, “be true to yourself”, “follow your dreams” has been accelerated beautifully by that Trojan Horse, the iPhone, turning Australians into a society of “look after number one”. Not to mention look AT number one. Tattoos, gyms, plastic surgery, auto-biographies by 25-year-olds all abound. It’s all about me. In other words, be selfish. What have selfies really done to most Australians? Previously, the expression, “I’m all right, Jack,” was used in a pejorative way towards people who were selfish. Not anymore. Ego is now everywhere and narcissism a scourge. People go about their lives thinking mainly about themselves. Our foremost and unhealthy ethos is self-interest. People literally have less space or inclination to think and care about other people. It really is “all about me”. Everywhere you look, read, watch, it’s egos abounding, all of which have

been accelerated by that destructive plague, “social media”. All of this results in a lack of commitment to justice and compassion. Fewer people think about what’s good for us as opposed to what’s good for me. We’ve drifted away from being an actual society to becoming different identity groups within a culture of competitive victimhood.


Dare I say it, amidst the horrific suffering and distress that one sees watching news reports from international disasters I nevertheless find it “heartening” to watch the instinctive and heroic actions of men and women endangering themselves by immediately going to the aid of other human beings. The current tragedy in Turkey and Syria reveals to all of us, men and women from all walks of life doing what human beings do instinctively; caring for and helping other people in need. That heartens me because it confirms the essence of humanity. Our own Black Summer of 2019/2020, the New York firemen on 9/11 and many similars

On 9 March 2023, the Greens will table a bill in the Federal parliament using the Commonwealth’s Legislative authority over the Northern Territory to make the detention of children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre unlawful. It’s a positive, decent and humane move that will provide, through the democratic process, an opportunity for all Australians to look at this issue, and empower them, if they wish, to tell their elected representatives to support it. It’s the debate the country needs, providing all of us with the ability and opportunity to make the right decision. And it could have more resonance and effect than the Voice thing.

The Decline and Fall of the NT Legal System

John B. Lawrence SC, 31 Aug 2021

The malaise that besets the NT legal system is symptomatic of Australia’s fall from grace as a country.

About the author

John B. Lawrence SC

John B. Lawrence SC is a Darwin barrister. He was a Crown prosecutor in Darwin and later solicitor in charge of the Northern Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. He is a past president of the Northern Bar Association and of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory. He represented one of the Don Dale youth detainees during the Royal Commission.

More articles by John B. Lawrence SC

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An article so impressively accurate, I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll leave it at that.

This article truely reflects what is happening in Australia today, I appreciate its frankness and it’s challenged me to consider am I doing enough. How would I behave differently if my own daughter was in Don Dale?

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