House debates

Thursday, 20 March 2008

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

Second Reading

12:17 pm

Photo of Kerry ReaKerry Rea (Bonner, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today also to add my comments to the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008. The amendments being proposed in this legislation are very significant in terms of this government’s commitment not only to continuing what is an effectively bipartisan approach to the elimination of sexual abuse of children in Indigenous communities but also to ensuring that that approach includes Indigenous communities and restores the respect to Indigenous communities that they deserve, particularly in the Northern Territory.

The previous speaker, the member for Cook, quite rightly said that this is a post-apology world. However, he went on to imply that this was a world where only rhetoric and words were being thrown around. A post-apology world is actually a world in which this government and this community work in partnership with Indigenous communities to ensure that the outcomes for them and their children and for generations to come are much better, greater and more significant than the fairly damning history of the outcomes of those communities in the past.

As I said, these particular amendments are about ensuring that the scourge of child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities is eliminated. It is not about ideological difference and it is not about playing politics; it is about ensuring that this hideous crime is eliminated from these communities—as, indeed, it should be eliminated from all societies. What these particular amendments do though, I believe, is restore respect for Indigenous communities and for the process by which we can eliminate this particular scourge. It restores respect for the inalienable title of Aboriginal land rights through the permit system. It restores respect for the Racial Discrimination Act, which was so clearly dismissed in the original legislation that was introduced by the previous government. And, of course, it restores respect to those Indigenous communities, particularly in prescribed areas, by giving them the opportunity to contribute, to be consulted and to inform the processes that will lead to the outcomes we want.

There are three key elements in this bill and I wish to focus in particular on two, which seem to be obsessing the opposition at the moment. One is the restoration of the permit system and the other is the changes to pornography provisions, particularly those in relation to pay TV licences. Previous speakers on this side of the House have very eloquently outlined the significance of the permit system as it existed in enshrining the respect and the honouring of land title for Aboriginal communities. Clearly, the permit system came out of the land rights acts that have come into force. These acts saw Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people as having inalienable title over their land; they enshrined the cultural significance of the connection between Aboriginal people and the land upon which they live; and they ensured that they were able to manage, honour and conduct their cultural activities and to survive and develop as a community on the land which they hold so dear.

I refer to the report by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in response to the Reeves report. A particular quote from the Marngarr Community Government Council reads:

In our culture you have to obtain permission to enter other people’s country; you cannot just go where you like. Indeed, I don’t think it is much different in any culture; there has to be respect for other people’s country.

The similarity of this quote to a quote from a previous Prime Minister of Australia was glaringly obvious. I remember the words: ‘We will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they will come.’ I am sure the previous Prime Minister in this House would then have to clearly agree with the restoration of the permit system because he obviously so clearly respected the right of those people who belong to a particular country or a particular land to determine the circumstances under which others come into that community.

It is not just a question of cultural significance and it is not just question of acknowledging the significance of the permit system in terms of land rights; it is also a question of acknowledging the practicality of this proposal when it comes to dealing with the emergency response. Many on the other side have said that removing the permit system will increase the level of abuse in these communities, that it is a retrograde step, that it will take the emergency response backwards. I fail to understand how allowing Indigenous communities to have some level of control over the people that come through their communities, over the people who come through their areas of land, can increase child sexual abuse.

But I do not have to ask the question. I would like to quote once again from the Police Federation of Australia, who have said quite clearly in their submissions and their reporting on this amendment that they support the permit system:

Operational police on the ground in the Northern Territory—

the police on the ground, who are actually seeing this legislation enacted—

believe that the permit system is a useful tool in policing the communities, particularly in policing alcohol and drug-related crime ...

If we are talking about eliminating child sexual abuse and if we want to look at the issues that cause that abuse to occur, I do not think anyone in this House would disagree that abuse of alcohol and drugs would have to be one of the leading contenders in the reasons why young children are being sexually abused in these communities and are also subject to terrible violence. I go on to quote:

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.

The Police Federation of Australia are not simply saying the permit system will increase child sexual abuse. What they are saying is that the lack of a permit system will have significant impact on them and on members of those communities being able to deal with this very serious issue.

There has been much made also by the opposition of the amendments to pornography legislation. Their original legislation, by the way, only dealt with X-rated material. There was no reference to R-rated material in the original legislation. This government is introducing restrictions around R18+ material for the first time. I know the opposition will say: ‘But we were going to do it. We intended to do it. We were going to go further. We were going to have a blanket ban on R18+.’ The reality is it did not happen. It was not introduced in the original legislation so, whatever they say they were going to do, they did not actually put it into action. In some ways, I am quite pleased because the ramifications of a blanket ban on R18+ would be quite significant. I note that members opposite who have spoken on this bill have been very critical of the formula that is introduced in this measure: at least 35 per cent of material must be classified as R18+ before a request can be made to the minister to have that particular channel taken out of a prescribed area.

There are a number of reasons, but one very significant reason, why the government has introduced such a formula, apart from the fact that we know, historically, blanket bans have not necessarily always been the best way to approach an issue. In this case a blanket ban on R18+ material would mean that the television channel that has probably done the most to support, to honour and to inform the general community about Indigenous culture and about the problems facing Indigenous communities in Australia would not be able to be broadcast in those areas of the Northern Territory. I am referring to the channel SBS. If we wanted a blanket ban on R18+ material, SBS would not be able to go into those communities.

I am a regular watcher of SBS. I find it one of the most incredibly informative television channels that we can watch. I also think that no-one in this House would disagree that, in terms of content that looks at, examines, promotes and informs Australian society about Indigenous communities and Indigenous culture, there could be no better television channel than SBS. I believe that if young Indigenous children, young people in those Indigenous communities, people who are trying to find a way out of the very problematic and difficult situations that they live in, were not able to watch a channel like SBS it would definitely be a retrograde step. There are programs which give them hope, there are programs which give them information, there are programs which celebrate their culture, and—unlike probably any other television station, perhaps with the exception of the ABC—SBS actually allows young Indigenous children to feel that they are part of this community because they can watch their people on television and feel connected to what those programs are trying to achieve. For that reason alone, I believe it is very important that the government continue with the formula that they have developed to deal with R18+ material.

Of course, there has been a lot of comment as well that this is watering down the ban on pornography, because it requires a request from members of those communities. Not only do I think that engaging with, dealing with and forming partnerships with members of those communities is actual a very practical, reasonable and logical step, it is actually a requirement under the Racial Discrimination Act. There is very clear advice that the original legislation, which was introduced by the previous government, could well have been subject to quite successful legal challenges under the Racial Discrimination Act because they had not actually addressed the special measures provisions, which include time limits and consultation with the particular community where it is proposed to introduce these measures.

Once again, we see the moral high-ground rhetoric from the opposition who believe that we are watering down measures or in some way allowing an increase in child sexual abuse. They have covered it all up without actually respecting or accepting the very practical measures and outcomes that come with these amendments. There are genuine, practical reasons why the government has gone down this path. What it really reflects overall is that this government is much more committed to the outcomes and the achievements of this particular piece of legislation than it is to simply conducting a window-dressing exercise that says: ‘Look at us; aren’t we wonderful? We are doing something about child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities but, in fact, we are really not going to worry too much about the practical elements which will ensure that outcome.’ What it shows is that the original legislation was very hastily put together. It was clearly rushed through this House without any meaningful debate being engaged in. But, most significantly, it was clearly rushed through without any real consultation with those people directly affected by this legislation—that is, the Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

I commend this bill to the House because it restores respect to Indigenous communities and addresses the practical realities of some of the issues that are contained within the original legislation. It means that the pornography ban goes further, but not to the extent that channels like SBS are not able to be broadcast. It fundamentally restores recognition of and respect for Aboriginal land rights and the role of the Racial Discrimination Act as a very powerful legal force in this country. For those reasons, I think this legislation is very worth while and worth supporting.

I am pleased that the government’s intention to deal with this very serious problem does not just stop with these amendments. It is clear that, between the original legislation and the initiatives being put forward by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Minister for Health and Ageing, further practical measures will see real outcomes for young people in those communities. There will be 200 extra teachers and three new boarding schools. Education was never even talked about in any real, meaningful way when the previous government first introduced the legislation. What more practical way is there to give young children who are being subjected to some of the most heinous crimes in this community an opportunity to not only live in a safer and more secure environment but also be able to build a better future, which gets them out of the cycle of violence and drug and alcohol abuse that they have seen their parents and grandparents subjected to? What better way is there to give a child a future than to give that child an education? There is no child in this country, whether they are Indigenous or not, who should be deprived of that right. Two hundred extra teachers and three new boarding schools will enable much greater access to secondary school education.

Not only do these amendments address eliminating child sex abuse, they work in conjunction and in partnership with initiatives from this government to see those children move out of that cycle of violence and abuse to somewhere more positive and more productive. Increased access to education will also enable them to be much greater contributors to broader society. Of course, it works in conjunction with the initiatives from the health minister to be serious about health checks, to ensure that health checks are done and followed up and to ensure that, in particular, women and children in these communities have the sort of health support that they need to lead a better quality of life. It is not just talking about health checks or saying that we are going to do this; there are actually real, practical measures which ensure not only that those health checks happen but also, most importantly, that, whatever the results of those health checks are, anything that needs medical treatment is followed up.

I applaud the minister for introducing these amendments. I believe they go a long way in this post-apology world to restoring respect, to dealing with the issue of child sexual abuse and to giving Indigenous communities some hope that the future will be much better than the past.


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