House debates

Thursday, 20 March 2008

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

Second Reading

1:36 pm

Photo of Daryl MelhamDaryl Melham (Banks, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

At the outset, I indicate that I will not be using my full allocation of time because I understand that the member for Herbert wants to say a few things before question time. Also, in view of some of the contributions to this debate, I am going to cast aside the speech that has been prepared for me by my staff. It is a good speech, but some of the best speeches are never delivered and this will be one instance.

I want to make a couple of points. Let us not kid ourselves. The intervention in the Northern Territory was not commenced as a bipartisan intervention. There was an attempt to blindside the then opposition. There was a press conference shortly before question time on the day the intervention was announced. The Northern Territory government was also not told about the intervention prior to the announcement, but certain Indigenous leaders were. It was not about being well intentioned. I have to say to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was quite cynical about the intervention at the time. I was not happy. It was not because I did not believe in interventions into the states and territories—and I will come to that in a moment. But my view was certainly strengthened when I saw a post-election interview with a senior cabinet minister, who pointed out that the government did not get the political bounce that they expected from the intervention in the Northern Territory. That said it all; and that is a matter of public record.

What was also dishonest was that the then Prime Minister and the then Indigenous affairs minister said that they were not able to intervene anywhere other than the Northern Territory, in terms of Aboriginal affairs, because the Territory was technically still answerable to the Commonwealth. That is not true. I said at the time, and I repeat: as a result of the successful constitutional referendum of 1967—the Aboriginal referendum, the so-called races power—the Commonwealth has the power to intervene anywhere in Australia in relation to Indigenous matters. And my view is that they should intervene, because I think that constitutional referendum gave the Commonwealth a moral authority. Ninety per cent of people voted in favour of the Commonwealth’s having powers to make laws in relation to Indigenous people. If people are not satisfied with the races power in the Constitution as a basis for intervention in states and territories, then we also have the special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act, which give the Commonwealth the power to intervene anywhere on Australian soil. We are not limited by the Surveyor General’s powers.

In relation to that, I believe the Commonwealth should intervene and that this intervention is, on balance, a welcome intervention, because hopefully it will make the lot of Aboriginal people in the Territory better. In terms of long-term solutions, the intervention is not going to be restricted to young children, and nor should it be. This whole intervention is based on the notion that there is a crisis in Aboriginal communities and that, if we do not intervene, the sky will fall in. The sky has been falling in for a long time in Aboriginal communities, and the white population and governments of both political persuasions have looked the other way. The figures that I want to quote to this parliament are telling. They are: 24 per cent of Aboriginal men survive to the age of 65, and 35 per cent of Aboriginal women survive to the age of 65. That is a disgrace. That is an indictment on this nation, it needs to be addressed, and I note that the current minister is addressing it.

I am quite happy that the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and the former Indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, both lost their seats at the last election. That is what the Australian public thought of them and their intervention in the Northern Territory, amongst other things. It was a powerful signal. But we need to do this with a bipartisan approach. We need to do this with the alternative government and involve them. I have been in this place for 18 years, and I was a shadow minister for 7½ of them. I have always tried to engage the government so that if there was a change of government we would have long-term security in relation to policy, because there is nothing worse than changes when there is a change of government. It sends the wrong signals. But in this instance, let us not kid ourselves. Particularly in relation to the permit system, the markers were laid by the then Labor opposition as to what we would do if we came into government.

Prime Minister Rudd has been very specific in saying, ‘We are going to honour our election commitments,’ and this legislation is, for the most part, an election commitment that we gave. It was a falsehood to say that abolishing the permit system was what was required for the intervention. It was never mentioned in the Little children are sacred report. The Northern Territory Police Association pointed out the folly of abolishing the permits and giving people free flow. You try to get onto the property of the Packers or the Murdochs without permission. What is wrong with Aboriginal people having to be asked for permission for others to go onto their property, onto their land? It is discriminatory to say, ‘Because you’re black, we’re going to come in anyway.’ That was not even part of the Little children report. It was an add-on, because it was reflecting the then political bent of the then government. The opportunity was used as an add-on.

Yes, there is roll-back, but I think we were telegraphing to the electorate and to the then government where we were going to go in relation to most of what is in this legislation. And that is all this is. It is a pursuit of the election commitments. The intervention has occurred; I applaud it. But I do not think an intervention is going to succeed without the cooperation of Aboriginal people, without the cooperation of the elders and the women in the community, and without the cooperation of the Northern Territory government. I said in the last parliament that the thing that annoyed me the most about the way the then government chose to intervene in the Northern Territory was that $250 million was allocated for administrative costs for the Commonwealth. I would have liked to have used that $250 million for achieving results instead of creating another bureaucracy on top of bureaucracies that already exist. There are little things like that that worry me a little bit.

I do not think the opposition have got anything to complain about, because most of their intervention has remained intact and in accordance with the support that the then Leader of the Opposition gave when we were ambushed with this proposal in question time, when it was put on the table. I have got to tell you: if we had been in government at the time of the intervention, there are aspects of the intervention that are in place now that I would have fought tooth and nail against—and I do not believe they would be in place. That is the test of this government: a commitment was given to support the intervention, and most of the tinkering and the changes that have taken place were telegraphed by the Labor Party before the election.

We went to the election with an honest intent and we delivered on that intent. That is what this amendment bill is all about. So I commend the amendment legislation to the House. I do not think that the opposition have much to complain about other than the fact that they got beat well and truly at the last election. As I said, this is not an ambush; this was telegraphed, and it is a delivery of our election promises. There is some marginal difference between us in how we approach it, but most of what the now opposition introduced has remained intact. Point to one sentence in the Little children are sacred report that talked about permits. It was not there; it was not in the recommendations; it came out of right field, so you cannot complain about it being abolished.


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