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Ex-NT minister grilled over 'anecdotal' indigenous underage marriage claims.

Summary: Elferink calls for stand against child marriage, but concedes he does not have evidence to back up claims

By Helen Davidson, Guardian

Darwin: The former Northern Territory (NT) minister John Elferink has called for Aboriginal elders to take a stand against the practice of underage marriage, despite not having evidence to back up his claims of its prevalence, which he admitted was based on anecdotes.

Giving evidence before the royal commission into the protection and detention of children, Elferink also said he was powerless to change child abuse policy, despite being minister at the time, and defended his decision not to resign when he found his principles were at odds with the government's.

Elferink was the former minister for children and families and also had numerous other portfolios in the previous Country Liberal party government. He was stripped of the justice and corrections portfolios following the calling of the royal commission.

For his commission statement, Elferink was asked by the commission what issues he would like to raise "in relation to the child protection policies, priorities, or practices of the government".

Instead he answered that he was extremely concerned about traditional practices of forced marriages of underage girls, and genital mutilation of boys in Indigenous communities.

"I'm turning to the royal commission to recommend to Aboriginal elders that it's time to make certain statements about what the baseline of child protection should be, and that it should be applicable to all children irrespective of cultural background," he said.

However, under questioning he conceded that his evidence of underage marriage was anecdotal, drawn from his time working in remote areas, what he read about in the newspapers, and conversations with NT chief justice Trevor Riley.

Elferink said he worked in remote central Australia between 1997 and 2005, a time the commissioner Mick Gooda noted was before the NT intervention.

The commissioner Margaret White said the inquiry was extremely concerned they may have missed in their investigations a child abuse practice which Elferink was now saying was widespread, and asked for his evidence.

The senior counsel assisting, Peter Callaghan, asked Elferink why he had left it to the last week of the commission to bring his information to its attention.

"We're concerned about this Mr Elferink, because if as you identify, there are cases of child abuse going on, this commission is concerned about them," said Callaghan.

Elferink said the commission set its own schedule.

"You were aware, Mr Elferink, that you were in a position to make a submission of or provide evidence to this commission with information at any time since its inception," said Callaghan.

Gooda said he and White had spoken to many members of Indigenous communities but "not once has this been brought to our attention", despite an evident willingness for the communities to make changes and take more responsibility for child safety.

Elferink suggested the commissioners hadn't asked the specific question.

Under questioning by lawyer John Lawrence SC, Elferink - who is a practising lawyer - later said he understood the rules of evidence, but "the rules of evidence don't necessarily apply to ministerial decisions".

Callaghan asked if Elferink had not felt the need to resign, given he disagreed with a policy which was core to his portfolio. "For a minister responsible for children, is the definition of child abuse a matter of principle?" asked Callaghan.

Elferink said it was, and rejected a suggestion he - as minister for children - was willing to forgo his principles for the sake of keeping his cabinet position.

"Because I had so many things to achieve in so many other portfolios, you make compromises," said Elferink. Gooda asked why he did not seek to change the policy instead. Elferink said he was unable to convince his cabinet colleagues, and so he left it.

"Why would I commit government resources to something I'm not going to get support for in cabinet?" He said there was nothing he could do about his concerns, even though he was the minister in charge at the time. "Perhaps the royal commission can." The commission continues.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jun 28, 2017
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