Thursday, 13 September 2007
Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007
Federal Labor gave bipartisan support for measures to tackle child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory when they were announced in late June. Our in-principle support was given because of the chronicle of abuse that Pat Anderson and Rex Wild detailed in their report into the protection of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory from sexual abuse. We knew that this compelled action, as did the litany of reports that preceded the Little children are sacred report. We believe that lamenting that action should have been taken sooner did not lessen the imperative to act now and nor is the reality that child abuse occurs in all communities a reason to sit on our hands in the face of this report.
Over the last decade, all sides of politics have failed to ensure children’s safety in Aboriginal communities. As I said before, in considering our response to the intervention, Labor articulated a simple test for assessing government proposals: will it improve the safety and security of our children in a practical way? We applied that test to the last legislative package and decided on balance to give our support. We noted after consideration of the details of those bills that they were deficient in many ways, so the opposition moved several amendments to strengthen the legislation. We moved amendments to make sure that just terms compensation is paid in instances of land acquisition; to enable access for traditional purposes to land acquired through the five-year township leasing arrangements; to protect children by retaining and strengthening the land permit system in the Northern Territory; to allow journalists and government agents such as doctors to enter Indigenous communities without permits; to introduce the capacity to review aspects of the legislation after 12 months, including the effectiveness of the township leases and the quarantining of welfare payments, which was specific to the Northern Territory; and, finally and very importantly, to clarify that these changes in the intervention are special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act and we sought to delete the exclusions of the Racial Discrimination Act. Unfortunately, the government did not accept any of these amendments and did not see any of them as useful to the legislation.
Just a few weeks later, we are now in the next sitting of the parliament and the government is treating the public and the opposition in the same arrogant way that it did with the first package of legislation. It is rushing the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007 into the parliament with no time for proper consideration. Despite these incredibly short time frames, the opposition has, once again, applied the same test as to whether or not these amendments will help in a practical way to protect children from abuse. The amendments before us today are aimed at stopping sly grog runners—at stopping the flow of alcohol into communities—which is, as we know, critical to protecting children from alcohol-fuelled abuse. In this task of protecting children, the government has our support so we will support this bill. However, at this point I move the following second reading amendment:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that:
- the Little Children Are Sacred report highlighted the link between alcohol and child sexual abuse;
- measures must target the supply of alcohol, especially by grog runners, and do so in a way that is workable and effective;
- supply measures should not be arbitrary, nor penalise those who consume alcohol responsibly and they should not place unnecessary burdens on either retailers or consumers;
- measures dealing with consumption of alcohol in parks should not penalise responsible visitors who are there for legitimate recreational or tourism purposes;
- Commonwealth measures should work in conjunction with local community alcohol management plans including those declaring dry areas;
- the further development of agreed supply side measures with the Northern Territory Government, communities and the liquor industry in the Northern Territory are vital to reducing alcohol consumption and addressing alcohol abuse; and
- improved access to rehabilitation services is necessary to help individuals to overcome alcohol abuse”.
We hold reservations about the workability of the provisions before us today. The reason we have the bill in front of us today is that a number of the changes that the government sought to introduce in the intervention just a month or so ago have already been found to be unworkable. We continue to have concerns about workability and in essence that is what our second reading amendment addresses.
We strongly supported the measures in the intervention legislation, designed to stop the rivers of grog flowing into and around Aboriginal communities. We know that the scourge of grog is well documented. There have been so many inquiries conducted into family violence and child abuse that consistently identify alcohol as a major contributing factor to family violence. The Anderson-Wild report, for example, noted:
... there has been inadequate restriction of the ‘sly grog’ trade, where alcohol is brought in illegally to Indigenous communities by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, exacerbating the alcohol problem, and consequently violence in the communities ...
The report recommended:
That, as a matter of urgency, the government makes greater efforts to reduce access to takeaway liquor in the Northern Territory, enhance the responsible use of takeaway liquor, restrict the flow of alcohol into Aboriginal communities and support Aboriginal community efforts to deal with issues relating to alcohol.
Alcohol can facilitate or incite violence by providing a socially acceptable excuse for negative behaviour. It can also, and does, act as a disinhibitor, allowing people to do things that they would not normally do when sober. Grog cultures can and do develop a force of their own, perpetuating disastrous cycles for communities. Alcohol control is critical to achieving community stability. Many Aboriginal communities recognise this and have taken action in the past to declare their towns dry, but it is very clear from experience that these are not easy solutions.
I am sad to say that this experience has been brought home again to all of us around Australia today. Just two months after the national intervention into the Northern Territory, we are seeing one small community in the Northern Territory—and this is just one reported today; I fear that there are many others—demonstrating the terrible suffering that is going on. A report in today’s Australian reveals what is happening on the ground in Titjikala, a community which I visited just in July. The article is headed ‘Lack of police fuels grog violence’. Here we are two months after the intervention and Titjikala has no police—there is no police presence in Titjikala; the police are located some time away from that small community. As the article in the Australian today says:
In an unintended result of the Howard intervention in indigenous affairs, violence and alcohol abuse has been imported to the few aboriginal communities without police.
Titjikala, 120 km south of Alice Springs—
I think the member for Lingiari will tell me it is south-east—
has become the drinking centre of central Australia—
this is one of the effects of what is going on—
and the crime statistics of the past three weeks—
and we’re not talking about the past 10 years; we’re talking about the past three weeks—
have been dominated by violent acts from drunken visitors.
Centrelink was forced to remove it staff last week, and a senior woman artist was stabbed in the head, although the injuries were not life-threatening.
Obviously, that her injuries were not life-threatening is something we are very glad about. The article goes on:
The week before, the community’s nursing staff was attacked and a group of drunken women rolled their car, seriously injuring one of them.
Community chairwoman Lena Campbell said residents were living in a drunken tinderbox.
‘Other communities have police and we don’t, and we have more visitors out here,’ she said.
‘They know where to come and celebrate because we don’t have police.’
Because Titjikala is on less than 2sq km of land, unlike other communities with large alcohol exclusion areas, people can drink legally close to the community.
The article goes on to say that grog fuelled weekends disrupt children’s sleep and cause poor school attendance, and that what the community wants is a permanent police presence. Of course, that is what this government has promised to these communities. Yet, again, we have a demonstration that that is not being delivered. The Titjikala council’s chief executive officer, Harry Scott, told the Australian:
‘When the police are present, and stay overnight, everything quietens down. When the police leave, the cars are driving out behind them to purchase more grog’ ...
Stopping alcohol abuse and related violence needs a police presence as well as alcohol controls. And another area which has received far too little attention as part of this intervention is that we need significant investment in rehabilitation services.
The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act, passed by the parliament just a month ago, set out a new liquor licensing regime for the Territory. The act created new offences with harsher penalties aimed at sly grog runners and new restrictions on takeaway sales of alcohol. The amendments presented here today change these new arrangements in several ways. Specifically, the bill changes the 1,350 millilitre trigger for seeking and recording details in relation to takeaway alcohol, and sets a new trigger of purchases of over $100 or the sale of wine exceeding five litres in a single container or two or more two-litre containers. The government have recognised that their previous position was unworkable. Requirements for storage of records of takeaway purchases are changed in this bill, so that the records can be stored at the direction of the licensing commission, with the implication being that the commission can regularly collect and store the records on the licensee’s behalf. Previously, the licensee had to store the records themselves.
The bill provides certain exemptions to the alcohol offences in relation to tourism operations in national parks, Northern Territory parks and other areas declared by the Commonwealth minister. There is now a defence if a person is engaged in recreational activities in a park that have been organised by a person in the tourist industry and that are consistent with any park management plan and the person is behaving in a responsible manner. The bill also provides that the alcohol measures can be determined not to apply in a particular area if warranted—for example, where comprehensive and effective alcohol management measures are implemented—and the bill makes clear that no past or future Northern Territory legislation undermines the emergency response alcohol measures.
The change from the volumetric alcohol measure to a dollar-value purchase, with an exception for wine casks, does make practical sense, because the potential problems of the government’s original proposal were highlighted almost immediately as unworkable. A submission to the Senate inquiry on the intervention from Woolworths expressed concern about the difficulty involved in calculating the volume of alcoholic beverages which equates to 1,350 millilitres of pure alcohol. The government members’ report from the inquiry noted this problem and recommended explanatory material to assist people to understand what is meant in practical terms by the phrase ‘a quantity of alcohol greater than 1,350 millilitres’.
Clearly, the government felt that, for the measures to succeed in stopping bulk purchasing of takeaway alcohol by problem drinkers and by grog runners, change was needed. Controls are absolutely meaningless unless they can be effectively administered. The proposed changes certainly make more sense than the completely unworkable 1,350 millilitres alcohol trigger that the government advocated just three weeks ago. Nevertheless, we remain concerned that the package of alcohol restriction measures will not work. We are concerned that we still have a number of measures that are unworkable and so we will be very carefully monitoring the impact of these changes. One hundred dollars in a single transaction is still a considerable sum of money, and multiple transactions at different outlets could get around this measure.
The NPY Women’s Council told the Senate inquiry that the availability of alcohol through outlets in Indigenous communities was only part of the problem. The supply of alcohol from the major towns in the Northern Territory also, of course, presents a significant issue. So the opposition certainly hopes that these measures will help to stop the sly grog runners but, as I said, we remain concerned about their workability.
The submission to the inquiry from the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation noted that the ready availability of alcohol in centres located close to Indigenous communities can undermine the effectiveness of prohibition measures and, to quote their submission:
The majority of illegal drugs and alcohol are brought in by road during the dry season. By opening the roads and townships, there is significant evidence to suggest that these problems will be exacerbated. Another impact of prohibition experienced by Maningrida was an outmigration of residents to Darwin. This had the effect of significantly disrupting local employment outcomes, family structures and also resulted in a number of alcohol related deaths in Darwin.
So we do remain concerned that a number of elements of the emergency response will undermine attempts at stopping sly groggers. In particular, as I noted when I spoke on the main legislation a few weeks ago, Labor was concerned, and remains concerned, that removing the permit system will increase the capacity for sly grog runners to enter communities.
In their submission to the Senate inquiry, the Police Federation of Australia said that:
Operational police on the ground in the Northern Territory believe that the permit system is a useful tool in policing the communities, particularly in policing alcohol and drug-related crime. It would be most unfortunate if by opening up the permit system in the larger public townships and the connecting road corridors as the Government intends, law enforcement efforts to address the ‘rivers of grog’, the distribution of pornography, and the drug running and petrol sniffing were made more difficult.
That is why Labor opposed the removal of the permit system in towns and roads in Aboriginal communities, because removing the permit system will make it harder to continue the task of protecting children.
The tourism industry in the Northern Territory does have the capacity to benefit local Aboriginal communities by being a very important catalyst for greater economic development. However, concern has been expressed that the alcohol controls could have adverse consequences for the tourism industry. The Northern Territory government has said that the restrictions will have a great impact on the Territory’s tourism industry, and that the measures were not addressing the intent of the legislation—dealing with problem drinkers. The Commonwealth government’s intervention into Aboriginal communities has targeted the supply of alcohol through sly grog runners, and this is what has Labor’s very strong support.
If we are successful at the coming election, Labor will work closely with the Northern Territory government to review the impact of these laws to make sure that they are effective in delivering the outcomes for which they were intended. We will also work with the Northern Territory government to review the impact of takeaway outlet hours and locations on problem drinking in many parts of the Territory. The Northern Territory government’s response to the Anderson-Wild report includes: recruiting additional alcohol compliance inspectors and court clinicians; implementing a licensing identification system across the Territory; implementing regional alcohol management strategies; and implementing an alcohol education program.
In addition to addressing alcohol supply, as I said before, more needs to be done on the demand side, such as alcohol rehabilitation and diversionary programs, particularly for young people. Sobering-up shelters are a safe and appropriate accommodation option for people when they are drunk. They reduce the immediate risk of harm, both to the people who are drunk and to others. Shelters can also help to mediate the impact of public drinking on families and the local community. There are about 20,000 admissions to sobering-up shelters in the Northern Territory each year, and there is significant demand for expansion.
In relation to alcohol rehabilitation, existing services need their capacity increased to cater for the many clients who need access to rehabilitation. They need to be open for more hours, including into the night. They must also have access to specialist drug and alcohol counsellors. Alcohol abuse is often a group activity and many of these rehabilitation services need to be conducted in family or peer groups to make them effective, not just with the individual alone.
We also know that halfway houses can help people after the rehabilitation phase to integrate back into normal life with stable work and a healthy place to live. These homes should work with peers and aim to replace group drinking culture with a culture of work and self-respect. To be effective, rehabilitation programs do need to be linked to transitional aftercare. It is counterproductive to have environments without activities for those completing rehabilitation.
The Katherine City Council told the Senate inquiry:
There are no activities there for those people, and when they are released from rehabilitation they are dumped in the main street of Katherine, where there are four liquor outlets.
This was a very succinct way of demonstrating the critical importance of rehabilitation and treatment services and then the follow-up activities that are needed. We also require rehabilitation programs for offenders of alcohol related crime. In 2005-06, 71 per cent of the total prison intake in the Territory was alcohol related, and a vast majority of those people were Aboriginal. Yet there is a clear absence of prison based and post-release programs to direct these individuals into training and work—and not back into alcohol. When they are released from prison, unfortunately many of these people fall back into their bad drinking habits.
Positive youth programs are another essential component to directing young people away from grog and drugs. Of course, that means we need to be able to offer them active and healthy alternatives. Youth diversionary programs were vital to the success of the petrol-sniffing program. We have seen the introduction of Opal, which has been very helpful, but the additional youth programs that have helped those addicted to petrol sniffing have helped those young people turn their lives around. The same applies to alcohol. Programs that reinforce positive culture are a particularly powerful way to re-engage at-risk youth and connect them to training and employment.
In the appropriations for the national intervention in the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth committed $16.2 million to child care, early childhood services and alcohol diversionary programs to support young people aged between 12 and 18 living in remote communities. Unfortunately, though, we have had a very low level of detail provided about the programs being rolled out. For example, we do not know and the public does not know how much of this money will be spent on alcohol diversionary programs. It would be very helpful if the minister could let people know how much will be spent specifically on alcohol diversionary programs as part of the intervention. It is very important for the success of the intervention.
In June 2006, during the Intergovernmental Summit on Family Violence in Indigenous Communities, the Commonwealth government committed $49.3 million for drug and alcohol services in regional and remote Indigenous communities across three states and the Northern Territory. Once again, we do not know how much of this money has been allocated to the Northern Territory. It would be helpful for that to be publicly known. We understand that this money, even though it was committed in 2006, was not released by the Commonwealth until August 2007. Once again I would ask the minister to let the parliament and the public know how much of this $49 million has now been spent. The delay is absolutely unacceptable, particularly when you look at the horrific circumstances happening in just one small community like Titjikala. We need this funding to be allocated urgently. We need additional police, additional rehabilitation services and youth programs to address the horrific level of alcohol abuse and violence that is still taking place.
Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory need a long-term commitment to their future from all levels of government and all sides of politics. So far, unfortunately, we have only seen the government commit funding to the Northern Territory emergency measures for one year. The Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs told the Senate inquiry that there is simply no money for any programs beyond the end of June next year. We do not know if that remains the case—whether all of these things that are about to be started will in fact end in June next year or whether the government does intend to make a long-term commitment. What Aboriginal children and their parents and extended families deserve to know is: what is the long-term commitment to their children’s education, to their health, to their safety, to alcohol treatment and control services and to police? What is the long-term commitment to additional police in the Northern Territory beyond June next year?
We on this side of the parliament have a long-term commitment to improving the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and in other parts of Australia. There is no question that tackling the alcohol problem is a necessary initial step, but it is going to be an ongoing challenge; it is not going to be fixed by June next year. Much more is necessary. The Anderson-Wild report said that the cycle of alcohol dependency, of having the pursuit of alcohol as the reason for living, has to be broken. That is just so true. A resident in a western Top End community told the Anderson-Wild inquiry:
At present people are living to pursue grog so they can forget why they are living.
We need to give people more. We need to rebuild the social and economic infrastructure in Aboriginal communities, to change destructive behaviour and provide positive pathways. It is dehumanising for Indigenous people to be talked about as just a problem, instead of recognising their strengths. There are many Indigenous people in the Northern Territory and in other parts of Australia who are taking control of their lives and their communities. We see great strengths in many communities—in the arts, in schools, in sport and local businesses. We know that there are many resilient people who know that change is achievable.
That is why on this side of the parliament we do stand looking forward, wanting to work with Indigenous people to turn the fresh ideas that we have and that they have into real change and, in particular, economic development. Each and every one of us has to take responsibility for improving the lives of Indigenous Australians—to close the shocking health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, to provide the economic services to give children a real start in life and, most importantly in my view, to deliver employment and economic development. All of these things are necessary to enable Indigenous children to grow up safe, healthy and happy.