Thursday, 13 September 2007
Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007
I am pleased to speak today to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007 because it addresses one of the central causes of violence in Aboriginal communities—alcohol abuse. Let me, for a moment, put the bill into context. On 21 June this year the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs announced national emergency measures to protect Aboriginal children in the Territory from abuse and give them a better and safer future. These measures are being introduced in response to the national emergency confronting the welfare of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. The immediate nature of the response reflects the first recommendation of the Little children are sacred report from the NT Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. The report recommended that Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance by both the Australian and Northern Territory governments.
The report made it clear that child abuse in the Territory’s Aboriginal community was at crisis levels. The Australian government announced immediate, broad-ranging measures to protect children, stabilise communities, normalise services and infrastructure and provide longer term support to build better communities. Central to this strategy are the new alcohol restrictions which will come into effect in the Northern Territory this Saturday, 15 September. They are part of the federal government’s response to child abuse in Aboriginal communities. But we are not imposing blanket bans across the Territory. Our approach is both focused and measured. The government has legislated to ban alcohol in prescribed areas of the Territory—on freehold land held by a land trust under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, community living areas, in all town camps and other designated areas. It will restrict the amount of alcohol brought into communities through new requirements for takeaway sales across the Top End and in Central Australia. These measures are essential if we are to stem the flow of alcohol that has been destroying Aboriginal communities and putting children at risk.
The bill before us today makes amendments to consolidate the alcohol measures in the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act. The bill changes the 1,350-millilitre trigger for seeking and recording details in relation to takeaway alcohol sales to reduce the complexity of that provision. It makes changes to clarify the storage of records of takeaway purchases. It provides certain exceptions to the alcohol offences in relation to tourism operations in parks and other areas if declared. It provides for the alcohol measures to be determined not to apply in a particular area if warranted, for example, where comprehensive and effective local alcohol management measures are implemented. And it makes it clear that no past or future Northern Territory legislation undermines the emergency response alcohol measures.
Under the new legislation, there will be penalties for anyone possessing, transporting or drinking alcohol in these areas, and heavier penalties if people are found to be running alcohol into these places. Fines imposed can range from $1,100 for personal infringements and up to $74,000 for trafficking. The new measures for alcohol takeaways across the Territory will not unduly inconvenience Territorians going about their business or engaging in leisure activities. They are aimed squarely at the grog runners who are profiting from the misery they inflict on Aboriginal communities.
We are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The bill reflects the recent discussions the federal government has had with the tourism and liquor industries and the concerns they expressed about the alcohol measures. On this note I would particularly like to thank Mick Burns and Doug Sallis of the Northern Territory Australian Hotels Association for the counsel they provided to me and for their assistance in refining this legislation.
The provisions of the bill do not apply if you drink, possess or transport alcohol while engaged in a recreational activity with a tourist operator in a national park or Northern Territory park, although special arrangements will be put in place at Uluru. Nor do the provisions affect people who are travelling through a prescribed area to a destination outside that area and who have unopened alcohol with them. But anyone who buys large amounts of takeaway alcohol will need to show photo identification, have their addresses recorded and declare where the alcohol will be consumed. While this may be inconvenient at times, it will assist the authorities to track down and prosecute grog runners. This will involve purchases of $100 or more or if more than five litres of cask or flagon wine is purchased.
The bill reflects some of these community concerns, and the changes made will make the law less complex and easier to understand while at the same time protecting children. The bill will help turn off the ‘rivers of grog’ that are destroying so many Aboriginal communities in the Territory. Alcohol abuse was identified as a major problem in the Little children are sacred report, where it was described as the ‘gravest and fastest growing threat to the safety of Aboriginal children’.
Under this bill some licensed premises or clubs in communities will be allowed to operate but only if they have strict local alcohol management rules and do not allow takeaways. In the prescribed areas covered by the emergency response, people will be banned from having, selling, transporting and drinking alcohol. But the toughest penalties are imposed on those selling alcohol. A licensee faces a maximum fine of $37,400 while employees of the licensee face a maximum fine of $6,600 for noncompliance with these new laws.
Of course, we should recognise that our long-term goal is to teach people to live responsibly with alcohol. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory should be treated the same as all Australians, and eventually that needs to happen. An important thing to remember is that the current legislation allows the minister to terminate the measures at any time. It is expected that measures may only be in place for some six months, subject to review. But they are there to help stabilise communities and give them a chance to recover.
Drug and alcohol teams will operate in regional centres across the Northern Territory to respond to community need as the alcohol bans are enforced. They will help with alcohol withdrawal, family support and linkages to healthcare services. I commend the work of the police, nurses, doctors and administrators, and that of the task force, but the job ahead—breaking the nexus between alcohol abuse, violence and the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in communities—will not be easy. The Australian government is spending $587 million this financial year as part of the emergency response to protect Indigenous children in the Territory. It is a huge task.
In relation to safety and security for children in the Territory, between 2001-02 and 2005-06 there was a 78 per cent increase in the number of notifications of abuse or neglect received by the Northern Territory Family and Children’s Services program, with an average growth in notifications of 14 per cent per year. Indigenous children in the Territory are 4.8 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be the subject of a substantiation report, but the Anderson-Wild inquiry stated that sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is common, widespread and grossly underreported. Following intervention, a critical factor in underreporting will be addressed. Police officers are now visible and accessible in many remote Aboriginal communities. Child sex abuse is a crime and perpetrators must be punished with the full force of the law.
The many inquiries that have been conducted into family violence and child abuse consistently identify alcohol as a major contributing factor to family violence. Grog cultures develop a force of their own, producing 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 own towns dry. There are no easy solutions. The measures in this bill will help to stop grog abuse and will particularly target the grog runners with new tough penalties.
The link between adequate housing and child safety has also been comprehensively made. Overcrowded housing is linked directly to children’s exposure to sexualised behaviour, family violence and vulnerability to abuse. The government’s intervention plan to reform housing arrangements by establishing market based rents for public housing with normalised tenancy requirements is welcome. It will improve infrastructure in communities and the level of available housing stock.
One of the critical issues in the Anderson-Wild report was the need to make sure that children go to school to guarantee both their safety and their future education. This, of course, is being addressed by the government. The federal intervention in Aboriginal communities and the supporting legislation will improve the safety and the security of Indigenous children in the Territory in a practical way. I commend the bill to the House because it directly makes the link between alcohol abuse and the protection of Indigenous children. It will further promote community safety and enable Aboriginal children the chance to grow up happy and healthy. This is what we want for our children, and we want nothing less for Indigenous children.