Can the Royal Commission investigate the many years of racist and Abuse

Last Tuesday, the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory opened.

The inquiry was raised literally overnight after an explosive report by the ABC's Four Corners program in July showed evidence of young people being abused in the juvenile detention system.

"This inquiry has been set two distinct but related tasks," Peter Callaghan SC, co-counsel assisting, told a packed Darwin courtroom on Tuesday.

The first is "to inquire into the failings of youth detention in the Northern Territory ... from 1 August 2006 ... until the present".

The second "is into the failings of child protection systems implemented by the Northern Territory Government" in the same period.

In a quirk of history, a significant figure from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Chamberlain Convictions was in the room to hear Mr Callaghan's words.

Ian Barker QC represented the Northern Territory Government in the 1986 Chamberlain royal commission. He had successfully prosecuted the Chamberlains in their trials four years earlier.

On Tuesday, Barker sought leave to represent Dylan Voller, the teenager seen in distressing images on Four Corners, hooded and strapped to a chair in the Territory's juvenile justice system.

Six months to review 10 years of failings

When Mr Barker appeared before his last royal commission in the Northern Territory the inquiry had a year to do its job. This one has six months.

The Chamberlain royal commission was restricted to re-examining evidence already scrutinised by two coronial inquests and the federal and high courts under appeal.

The current royal commission in the NT will investigate the policies, procedures and resources of government and community bodies involved in youth detention and child protection in the NT over a period of 10 years and deliver its findings in March next year.

Readers from the Northern Territory will be yawning by this point and thinking they have heard it all before.

Mr Callaghan said there were "at least a dozen" existing reports and reviews of the NT's child detention and protection systems he believed were "potentially relevant" to the royal commission.

I can name half of the dozen — all delivered in the six years I lived in the Northern Territory. They took an average of nine months each from commissioning to delivery. The royal commission has six months.

Commissioner Mick Gooda has said he is determined to "craft the best, implementable recommendations possible" from this royal commission.

He shares the community's fatigue with reports that achieve no change.

If the commission's findings in March leave Territory old timers with a sense of de ja vu, the findings themselves will come from fresh investigations.

Government departments and community and legal organisations are already scrambling to deliver thousands of documents called up by the commission.

Time is ticking

But at this early stage, far more is unknown than is certain.

No-one knows what the commission itself will cost.

The Attorney-General's Department said in a statement on Thursday:

"Funding for the royal commission is currently being finalised."
"It is not yet known how many witnesses will come forward with relevant evidence," Callaghan's fellow counsel assisting, Mr McAvoy SC said on Tuesday.

Nor is it known how accessible "the records of institutions and persons with first hand knowledge," will be. Data and document management are not high on the skills list of any organisation in the Northern Territory.

Tony McAvoy SC articulated other challenges faced by the royal commission.

"They include challenges that attend upon any proceedings in which it is sought to hear the evidence of young people," he said.

Majority of juveniles in NT system are Aboriginal

The commission wants to engage with the Aboriginal community "with a high level of cultural competency," Mick Gooda said.

If the commission's recommendations are to stick at the end of the process, it has to have the Indigenous community in its corner. Aboriginal children make up 97 per cent of incarcerated juveniles in the NT system.

CHART: Aboriginal Prison Rates - Northern Territory

Commissioners Gooda and White and their staff have less than six months to establish that competent engagement.

There is no doubting the resolve of their intentions.

But there are serious doubts that six months will be long enough to build trust with Aboriginal Territorians or do the crucial work of reshaping the machinery of a broken system - some say a broken state.

In closing on Tuesday, counsel assisting Tony McAvoy SC said: "The capacity to undertake … inquiries such as this form an important part of the protective measures the international community expects to be afforded to children in this country ..."

I thought immediately of the image of Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair, splashed on the front page of Canada's largest newspaper six weeks ago.

"This can only be achieved with detailed and accurate information and evidence. That is what we will aim to provide to you," Mr McAvoy said.

The question is – can anyone do that in just six months?