House debates

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008

Second Reading

11:17 am

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Heritage, the Arts and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008. This bill introduces amendments to consolidate the special measures protecting children in the Northern Territory which the John Howard government enacted in 2007. Amongst the very important elements of the emergency response which we introduced was a prohibition on the possession, control and supply of pornographic material in the prescribed areas. The then minister Mal Brough introduced legislation in September 2007 to ensure that the pornography that was available through paid television was also banned in these prescribed communities. Unfortunately, the parliament was prorogued before this legislation passed through both houses. This was legislation restricting pornography access via pay TV. This remained unfinished business and I am pleased that the Labor government has picked up that unfinished business to address pornography available through paid television. As I will say further along in my remarks, however, we are not pleased that, instead of a total ban on beaming pornography into the communities via pay television, what is being allowed is something quite different: only a ban if more than 35 per cent of that paid television in a week contains pornography and only if the community asks that the banning occurs.

Also in the period of the John Howard government, we introduced legislation to include the licensing of roadhouses, along with of course community stores, to ensure that where the roadhouses were offering food and beverage they could also then be utilised by those who had quarantined welfare and were using a special card to buy groceries and so on. Again, that remained unfinished business when parliament was prorogued, so this bill makes sure that roadhouses are reintroduced as another way for these Indigenous communities to buy their food, drink and other necessities. In fact, we support that particular element of this bill. It simply echoes what we were intending.

This bill also addresses the permit system. We just heard the most extraordinary remarks from the previous government speaker. He was trying to justify the permit system by saying it was okay because the police say the permit system was okay. Unfortunately, if the permit system was so amazingly good, if it so served the interests of the policing in those communities, how come we have some of the worst prevalence of criminal behaviour of any communities in the world in these prescribed communities, under the veil of silence brought down by the permit system?

Another element of this bill introduced by Labor is allowing the pornography that is purchased by someone to be transported through or past a prescribed community. They do not intend that should be a criminal offence. We understood very clearly how that could be used as an excuse in those areas to avoid criminal sanctions and so we intended that all pornography, including that which is carried through a community, be banned.

Let me go back to the beginning. In April 2007 there was yet another shocking report on the life experiences of some Indigenous Australians, and this report was delivered to the Northern Territory government. The report, produced by the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Children from Sexual Abuse, was rigorously researched, and it presented a compelling and compassionate case for immediate and comprehensive intervention to stop Indigenous child sexual abuse in some communities. Of course, the facts were not news to the Northern Territory government, and they were also pretty familiar in Queensland, Western Australia, parts of South Australia and parts of New South Wales. So it was not news to the Northern Territory government. The Northern Territory government was more than familiar with the conditions described by the report; they had existed for decades. Unfortunately there had been a failure to act by the Northern Territory government over a very long period of time.

On behalf of the Australian nation, the Howard government stepped in, declared an emergency and introduced special measures and resources so that this time the victims—Indigenous men, women and children—might be saved from a life of abuse and degradation. We knew, because this report and the victims themselves told us, that we had to break the cycle of unemployment, welfare dependency, poverty, poor housing, poor school attendance, alcohol, drug abuse and violence which included one of the most heinous crimes in human society, and that is the sexual abuse of babies and young children. The report described the incessant and relentless exposure to degrading pornography that groomed little children and teenagers by allowing them to come to the view that what they saw and heard on DVDs and on television was normal and acceptable human behaviour. There was really no chance for children to avoid this constant exposure, because of the overcrowding in the houses and the lack of privacy.

Some excellent investigative journalism took up the Little children are sacred report and helped bring the facts of this appalling situation into the homes and minds of mainstream Australians. The cry went up. How could this situation of appalling living conditions continue—with child rape by adults, child rape by children, incest, physical violence and emotional abuse? How could this have been happening while Melbourne and Sydney were vying to be the world’s most liveable city? Quite simply, it was happening and it had been happening for several generations, because a permit system was in place forbidding access to towns and communities in what are now prescribed regions. The permit system was in place in Indigenous communities and it required that you had to apply to a land council or to a local community to get permission to travel through or to stop and stay.

The permit system ensured that, other than the victims and perpetrators of these crimes, only a small band of Northern Territory government officials and the police were aware of the shameful conditions and crimes. We know that little was done about the criminal behaviour and the appalling infrastructure in these places—which the permit system in no way stopped or even slowed down. In fact, many have argued that the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation served the purveyors of grog, drugs and pornography. It gave them an open field—freedom, if you like—and it allowed police inactivity or ineffectual policing practice to continue. Quite self-evidently, we had to do something to lift the veils of secrecy and silence that were allowing such behaviour to be a part of Australia’s living conditions.

One of the first emergency responses of the John Howard government was to normalise access to the Northern Territory prescribed communities. We did not say, ‘It’s open slather now.’ We normalised the situation by saying, ‘What is acceptable and commonplace in the rest of Australia should apply here.’ In other words, when you go to a town or an Indigenous community, where you would expect to go to a shop, an art gallery or a public place, you can do that in all parts of the prescribed areas all through the Northern Territory. Only 0.2 per cent of the whole of the region under the permit system was to become accessible to the traveller: the grey nomad passing up the highway, the journalist, the person who wanted to see if they wished to live in that community too, or perhaps apply for a job, or the person who wanted to stop and buy something at the store. It was only 0.2 per cent of the area that was to be no longer requiring a permit to visit, but we thought that was of incredible importance.

Let me say too that one of the foremost Indigenous leaders in the Northern Territory, Central Australian Aboriginal Labor politician Alison Anderson, is absolutely in favour of removing the permit system for Aboriginal communities, because she believes it works towards shielding predators and exposes women and children to abuse. In commenting today in the Australian on a code that the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has tried to impose on journalists, she says that the code is ‘absurd’. Today on the front page of the Australian there is a report of a most extraordinary situation. Paul Toohey, an award-winning journalist who works for the Australian, has handed back his Walkley Award in protest against the journalists union trying to put further constraint on journalists being able to freely report what is happening in these Indigenous communities. Mr Toohey was named Australian Journalist of the Year in 2000 for his reporting from Northern Australia. He won a Walkley award in 2002 for an article about petrol sniffing in some Indigenous communities. He says that the code shows, surprisingly, a profound ignorance of how journalists work to require them to get a permit from the minister of the day, from the police or some other government agency to be allowed to go into these communities in order to report what is really there.

I think it is absolutely necessary for this government to rethink their plan to reintroduce permits right across the board in these areas. I have to wonder: is it their intention to simply honour the promises made by the member for Lingiari, who when campaigning for his re-election in that area perpetrated such untruths about our permit system changes that had Indigenous Australians out in those regions thinking they were going to have tourists trampling on sacred sites? People in these communities told me personally that they had been told by the member for Lingiari that if this permit system was changed their sacred sites would become camping sites for people in caravans and their houses would be entered by the public without their permission. What nonsense. What untruths they were. But I suppose now this government is trapped and it has to follow through on what the member for Lingiari said during the heat of the campaign. I think the government should pay very careful attention to what the Little children are sacred report understood and reported, and that is that the veil of secrecy and the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ conditions of these communities have perpetuated generation after generation of abuse and substandard conditions.

Obviously our opposition intends to try to have you amend the legislation, to reinstate the 0.2 per cent of area removed from permit requirements so that these different communities can have more commercial opportunities—and that is a very important consideration too—and will also have their conditions exposed to the greater Australian population and not be left in an apartheid type of situation.

Let me also say that in the Little children are sacred report there was a great deal of emphasis on the shocking outcomes of extraordinary exposure to pornography. The inquiry detailed the prevalence and impacts of heavy alcohol and drug use—the violence, the family breakdown and the weakening of the traditional and cultural values in modern Australian society that were to be found in the communities that were investigated. The report highlighted the impacts on unemployment, low school attendance, poverty and dysfunctional behaviour. But at the heart of the report was the prevalence—and, so, the complete and utter degradation endured by many Indigenous Australians—with the pornography affecting small children and those who were grooming those small children, hoping they would become available to them for rape or sexual assault.

We felt that our banning of all pornography was the only appropriate way to address this problem. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we intended to include paid television pornography broadcasting. That was in the legislation we introduced into the House. We are incredibly concerned that, with the amendment before us, services cannot be declared as banned unless they transmit more than 35 per cent of R18+ program hours over a seven-day period and communities cannot have their access to this television service restricted unless they are in a prescribed area in the Northern Territory. The Indigenous affairs minister is satisfied that the community concerned wants the services restricted, following proper consultation, and it is appropriate to do so.

One of the things that the Little children are sacred report emphasised again and again was the powerlessness of the victims in this shocking situation—the mothers, the teenagers, even the men and boys who were themselves victims of rape. They are often not in a condition to stand up and challenge the purveyors of this pornography or those whose business is grooming the children to become their victims in the years ahead. It is a nonsense to say that now we are going to ban the R18+ paid television pornography only if the community steps forward and asks for this material to be banned. How are they going to do that? Are they going to wait for a letter in the mail? Is the minister going to wait until she gets 51 per cent of the community putting its hand up? Does she accept deputations? How is this to be done in a way that is going to protect the victims of the pornography that has caused and is causing such enormous breakdown of traditional cultural practice and that has led to such a sense of hopelessness and low self-esteem, especially amongst the young men? What is being proposed is absolute nonsense.

The idea, too, that it is not a crime to transport the materials through a prohibited area on the basis that the destination for the pornography is ultimately outside the prescribed area just gives those who make a profit from this material an out. We do not think that that is sensible at all. The bill proposed in the House today states that an offence for possession or supply:

... does not apply if the person proves that the material was brought into the prescribed area for the sole purpose of transporting it to a place outside the prescribed area.

So if you do not get caught it is okay but, if you are caught with a bootload of porn, you can always say that it was destined for Alice Springs, or up the road, or back where you came from. We think that that is a nonsense. Why would you allow that to be an acceptable non-criminal offence when what we are trying to do is save the next generation of victims—children and women, but men too—from this sexual abuse which is destroying their lives?

You must take notice of our amendments, which were introduced in the House by the shadow minister for families, community services, Indigenous affairs and the voluntary sector. We want the government to support a continuation of the permit lifting, which we introduced in the House and which allows 0.2 per cent of the area to no longer be hidden from view—from  journalists or from ordinary Australian men and women—so that the apartheid system can be ended. We also ask that the pornography that is to be found in these areas on paid television be banned outright. On the other hand, we do not believe it is acceptable to let those who have a bootload of pornography off the hook if they say, ‘Well, we actually weren’t going to drop it off here; we are moving down the road.’ But we do support the inclusion of roadhouses and community stores that are licensed as having appropriate nutritional food. We support the roadhouses being included in the new arrangements so that better nutrition and more food is available in these prescribed communities.

We do not want to see any watering down of our emergency response at all. I cannot understand how this government, whom we supported in standing up and saying sorry for the stolen generations—this government that plays lip-service to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians—could have before us this amendment bill which waters down the emergency response and exposes the women and children but also the young men to further degradation and violence. (Time expired)


No comments