Dutton, Price challenged on reporting claims of NT child abuse

Peter Dutton with Senator Jacinta Price and Darren Clark in Alice Springs.

Peter Dutton with Senator Jacinta Price and Darren Clark in Alice Springs. Photo: Facebook/Peter Dutton

A Coalition Senator could not say if Peter Dutton complied with a legal obligation to report a case of alleged extreme child abuse, as the Liberal leader’s rhetoric against the Indigenous Voice has come in for serious scrutiny.

Debate on this year’s Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum veered into new territory last week as Mr Dutton, now the de facto leader of the ‘no’ campaign, repeated anecdotes alleging systemic failings and child abuse in remote communities.

Mr Dutton, a former home affairs minister, has been calling for the urgent deployment of the federal police in response to the claims.

One particular claim repeated on national television by Mr Dutton – that a child victim of abuse had been returned by social workers and police to their abusers, dragged as they screamed – has been met with scepticism but also serious questions for the Opposition Leader.

NT Police Minister Kate Worden said Mr Dutton’s interest in social policy in the territory was oddly recent; she further accused him of making “baseless” claims about child abuse but said the case he raised last week, if genuine, would have made him legally obliged to file a report to authorities.

“If Mr Dutton has evidence of these claims that he’s made around child sexual abuse in Alice Springs he needs to come forward and he needs to give evidence,” she said.

The territory’s very strict child protection laws legally require any adult who learns of cases of children being exposed to serious harm to contact police.

Under other states’ laws only certain professions such as teachers, nurses and psychologists are similarly obliged.

Reporting in question

Calls for Mr Dutton, a former police detective, to explain whether he had filed a report before last week’s press conference have now been backed by NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and the head of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Catherine Liddle.

But Coalition Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a former deputy mayor of Alice Springs who stood alongside Mr Dutton while he repeated that claim, would not say on Sunday if the mandatory reporting law had been followed.

“We’re not stupid, Peter Dutton is a former policeman; he knows what needs to be done,” Senator Price said during an interview on the ABC’s Insiders program.

“Territory families know about them. I’m assuming that they have reported that”.

Senator Price said certain foster families had told her government departments had returned children to abusive homes, but again would not say whether she had been legally obliged to report such cases – or if she had done so.

“The problem isn’t … the reporting’s been done … the problem is the way in which the system is failing these children,” she said.

Written questions and a text message sent to Mr Dutton’s media adviser offering them the chance to confirm if he had filed a police report upon learning of these cases did not receive a response on Sunday.

At the press conference in Alice Springs Mr Dutton became irate when asked whether there was any evidence of a rise in cases of sexual abuse in the NT (government statistics record no escalation).

“I can tell you though, what the human experience is on the front line,” he said.

Call for urgent intervention

Mr Dutton has called for federal police to be urgently dispatched to the Territory, while Senator Price on Sunday called for a federal takeover of Territory child protection agencies.

But data presented to the media last week to back up Mr Dutton’s claim of a crisis needing urgent intervention, national health and welfare statistics from the fiscal year 2020-2021, was collected during Mr Dutton’s time as minister for the federal police.

A ministerial direction Mr Dutton sent to the federal police during that year outlining his priorities as a minister makes no mention at all of remote Indigenous communities, but does prioritise a police body focusing on “online” child exploitation.

(The only other published ministerial direction Mr Dutton gave the police force related to investigating journalists in cases of investigations into their sources).

Asked whether there was evidence Mr Dutton had used his powers to direct the federal police’s priorities to focus on social problems in remote communities now occupying his mind, his press secretary did not respond on Sunday.

There have been calls to have Senator Price fill the Indigenous Affairs spot in the shadow cabinet vacated by Julian Leeser, who last week resigned in a show of support for the Voice.

But she is a member of the National Party and by an agreement between the Coalition parties the portfolio is reserved for a member of the Liberal Party, which could complicate matters for Mr Dutton.

Running for The Voice

Meanwhile, on Monday Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will join ultra-marathon runner and former Liberal MP Pat Farmer, who is running across Australia to support the Voice.

The PM, whose calls for a ‘yes’ vote has been supported by a growing number of Liberals in state divisions or outside the parliamentary party, will call for those who believe in the Voice to see the campaign as a journey.

“For all of us, there will be days when the ground is rocky and the going is tough,” the PM will say.

“There will be days when it’s all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. But when we cross the finish line, the destination will be worth it.”

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