WA corrections minister seeks ‘legal advice’ against former Australian of the Year

West Australian Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston has hinted at a possible legal complaint against former Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley, after claims she made in an article published on Tuesday.

In an opinion piece published in The West Australian, Stanley claimed Johnston told last week’s crisis meeting about the treatment of juveniles at Perth’s Banksia Hill Detention Centre that the government didn’t want to hire Aboriginal people because they would be “upset”, and was instead recruiting African staff.

Former Australian of the Year professor Fiona Stanley, Credit:Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Stanley also refuted claims by WA Premier Mark McGowan that the meeting’s attendees meeting mostly agreed the government was on the right track and an inquiry into the Banksia Hill detention centre, which was the recent subject of a Four Corners expose, was not needed.

“We agreed with the premier’s concern that a royal commission was not a good idea. However, we pushed for an inquiry into what is happening at Banksia. At no time did we agree the government was ‘on the right track’,” she wrote.

Stanley singled out Johnston and Community Services Minister Simone McGurk for responses they gave to questions during the meeting.

“The responses from ministers McGurk and Johnston were, I thought surprisingly, alarming,” she wrote.

“Mr Johnston, responding to my question about employing Aboriginal people in Banksia Hill (there are so many outstanding First Nations professionals in WA), said that they didn’t want to employ Aboriginal people as they might be upset and that, instead, they were recruiting Africans!

“And Ms McGurk encouraged us to be more balanced in the media.”

Johnston refused to discuss the opinion piece when questioned on Tuesday, only that he was seeking “legal advice” on how to respond.

He told parliament shortly after that he was deeply offended by Stanley’s claims that he said implied he was racist.

Stanley has repeatedly said she did not agree with the government on whether an inquiry into Banksia Hill was warranted and Opposition leader Mia Davies quizzed McGowan on who was telling the truth during question time.

McGowan doubled down and said Stanley told the meeting she did not want an inquiry.

“There was a range of other people who said they didn’t and one of the others who said they didn’t was Fiona Stanley, she said she didn’t want an inquiry and she didn’t want a royal commission,” he said.

“Dr Fiona Stanley at the meeting said she didn’t want an inquiry, that’s what she said, that’s what my notes say, that’s what the other people’s notes say, that’s what I heard her say.”

McGowan also told parliament that Johnston said the opposite of what Stanley claimed he said about detention centre recruitment.

“He said the opposite at the meeting and that’s what my notes reflect, that’s what I heard him say,” he said.

The relationship between the McGowan government and advocates of children in Banksia Hill and Unit 18 at Perth’s maximum-security Casuarina Prison has deteriorated rapidly since last Wednesday’s meeting.

Since the meeting, Stanley and other attendees including Social Reinvestment WA co-chair Daniel Morrison have been refuting the government’s account of what happened.

Stanley and Morrison, along with the government’s own Aboriginal Advisory Council co-chair Gail Beck, released a joint statement on November 24 lashing McGowan’s decision to release a statement to journalists following the meeting without consulting attendees.

On Sunday, the group stepped up their criticism, with Stanley labelling it a “disappointing summit”.

They also labelled the government’s $63 million commitment to upgrades to Banksia Hill a “PR stunt”.

Stanley is an epidemiologist and public health expert who was named Australian of the Year in 2003 for her medical research.

She is one of Western Australia’s most revered public health professionals to the point where the state’s biggest hospital is named in her honour.

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