House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 25 November 2009, on motion by Ms Macklin:

That this bill be now read a second time.

7:07 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise not to oppose the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. It is a valuable opportunity to get a few local issues on the record. I note that the Bills Digest outlines that there is no unifying theme in this legislation but a broad suite of changes, some minor amendments and a group of disparate measures. These include the amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 to schedule land to be granted as Aboriginal land, some minor amendments to the income management regime, amendments to the operation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, a beneficial amendment to the gifting provisions in the means test for pensions and benefits, amendments to provisions relating to beneficiaries of discretionary trusts to address issues arising from a recent Federal Court case, amendments to the notification provisions relating to the baby bonus and, finally, amendments to correct minor anomalies and technical errors in the social security law, the family assistance law and the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006. I think the Bills Digest is correct in saying that it is a broad suite of changes without a unifying theme but certainly with its own forms. They are welcome.

On the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the minor amendments to the income management regime directly relevant to income management in Cape York, and allowing the Family Responsibility Commission in Queensland to income manage age pensions or carer payments, I just reiterate a comment I made last week on the response from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the second anniversary of the apology and the Closing the gap statement. We on the east coast of New South Wales and, in particular, the mid-North Coast are increasingly concerned, frustrated and worried about the amount of attention going into the Northern Territory and Cape York for all things related to closing the gap and Indigenous related issues.

There is a very good map in the Closing the gap documents that tells the real story and not the stereotype quite often presented by many members of this parliament and of the executive. The image that the majority of Aboriginal people live in dusty outback towns in the Northern Territory, outback Western Australia or Far North Queensland is not correct. The vast majority of the Aboriginal population lives on the east coast. They are coastal Indigenous dwellers and do not fit in with that stereotype that is quite often painted by government. It is a concern that we see enormous attention and political debate around Indigenous populations in the Northern Territory, for example, and how Commonwealth and Territory relations have allowed for an ‘emergency intervention’ in one part of Australia.

If we are serious about this topic, if we are serious about words like social inclusion and if we really want to tackle the complexities of this issue, the regionalised, urbanised coastal populations on the east coast of Australia are where the vast majority of the Australian Aboriginal population live, yet in 15 months in this place I have heard very little about them from the executive. This very good map is in the Closing the gap documents, but it is sad that we do not hear words or see attention from government shaped around the government’s own map and the realities of where that majority of the population live. Once again, with this legislation we see examples of that.

I also made the point last week in regard to Cape York. It is a worry that in communities such as mine there seems to be an increasing reliance in the political process, in certain newspapers—national dailies—on this desire to paint all the voices of the Aboriginal populations of Australia with the one brush of Noel Pearson. Noel Pearson does some tremendous work for his communities of Cape York. Noel Pearson is one voice among many voices about Indigenous policy throughout Australia. But I would hope the executive and all members of this chamber recognise that there are many voices, many leaders in Indigenous communities throughout Australia. I think that this constant desire by the government and the opposition to paint themselves close to the politics of Cape York, to somehow capture the Aboriginal communities of Australia, is a dangerous trend that, increasingly, we are seeing in trying to close the gap and truly reconcile with the many Aboriginal communities within Australia. Please do not leave behind the many communities on the east coast and do not forget the complexities, the number of voices and the number of leaders who exist within the many Aboriginal communities of Australia.

Whilst this particular legislation, once again, sees some changes directly targeted at Cape York and whilst we, once again, see some changes directly targeted at the Aboriginal Lands Trust in the Northern Territory, I do not oppose either of those. I would certainly hope that they are of value to progression and reconciliation within both those communities. But I do flag, once again, this issue involving the rest of Australia—for example, the issue around the very large east coast population on the mid-North Coast. It might surprise many people here that 11 per cent of the New South Wales Indigenous population is in the electorate of Lyne. It probably has not been talked about much before, it probably has not been recognised much before, but it is there. It is active, and dealing with a regionalised Indigenous population and the challenges wrapped up in that Indigenous population is a complex challenge. Therefore, how the executive responds to those challenges will be a challenge.

Only a fortnight ago we had an example where there was an application for certain funding around Aboriginal health. It was only applicable to communities with a population fewer than 20,000. Why? Because government wanted to get to the needs of rural and remote Aboriginal communities. However, in talking about needs, within my electorate I have fewer than 20,000 Aboriginal people with significant health needs in the mid-North Coast communities. However, they are buried into a broader population, which therefore means we cannot apply for that significant, important and potentially much-valued funding from the government. So if we are serious about this issue, please recognise where the majority lives and please consider us, moving forward, in future legislative changes.

Another significant issue I want to raise because we are talking about Aboriginal land rights—I am going off on a small tangent but it is an important one for me to get on the record—is the importance of a native title claim that finally came through, in 2010, at the end of last week. The Dunghutti communities, shaped around Crescent Head, were, supposedly, the first to receive recognition for the extinguishment of native title and due compensation to follow from that. It was the first practical example following the Mabo case that grabbed the headlines and came out of various court processes. Sadly, it has taken almost 13 or 14 years for the state to come through with compensation and to do its bit by paying due compensation for the extinguishment of native title. At the end of last week a ceremony was held in the electorate of Lyne and a substantial compensation payment, of $6.1 million, was paid to the Dunghutti communities for the extinguishment of native title.

Hopefully, that is the start of yet another step in recognising the importance of land, the importance of High Court judgments around terra nullius, the Mabo case. Also, importantly, for residents of the Crescent Head communities, I think it puts at peace any of those fears that were thrown around in the mid-1990s about people potentially losing their homes or losing private title as a consequence of native title. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is dealing with some unfinished business of over 200 years ago, and I would hope the communities not only at Crescent Head but right throughout Australia start to recognise the importance of practical reconciliation as well as the words that we often hear spoken today about reconciliation.

A separate topic altogether, which is of interest, is the baby bonus and the changes, which occurred in 2008, from a lump sum payment to a series of 13 fortnightly payments. There is now a change to the way someone reports, if they change care of a child at a very early stage of life, which I would hope people consider not doing. Sadly, it is a reality of Australian life today that it happens and therefore there are reporting requirements around that. I just want to put on the record my reaffirmation, if you like, for the baby bonus. I know that many people in this chamber are critical of that payment but, from a policy perspective, I think it is of value in not only supporting those families with those early-stage costs but also recognising that there are many people who have significant cost-of-living pressures in communities such as the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. There are a range of pressures at any time, let alone in those early stages, and this measure is of assistance and has proven itself to be. I hear pub talk about people blowing the bonus on the pokies or drinking it but I think that is, more often than not, anecdotal pub talk rather than factual evidence. What I see with my own eyes and hear from young families is that the baby bonus has been of significant benefit to their lives and has allowed them to build a family, worrying about financial pressures, but for a short period having some of those pressures relieved through the baby bonus.

I also want to mention the issue of private trusts. Following a Federal Court decision in 2008, the provisions of the Social Security Act 1991 relating to income support recipients who are the beneficiaries of private trusts needed to be clarified. The mechanism for determining whether the income of the trust is income of the income support recipient for means test purposes was brought into question in the court case. According to the explanatory memorandum to the bill, the amendments in the schedule have the following rationale:

These amendments clarify that, where a social security customer or veterans’ affairs pensioner is the beneficiary of a discretionary trust, and the trustee of that trust has a duty to provide for the maintenance of that customer or pensioner, even if the customer or pensioner receives a social security payment or veterans’ affairs pension, then the trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. It should not be relevant that there are other future beneficiaries of the trust, when those parties are not currently receiving any benefits from the trust.

The Mid-North Coast has a significant number of Centrelink benefit recipients. In the recent census figures, we were in the top 10 per cent of electorates in terms of the number of people on some form of income support. This bill will clarify for several people on the Mid-North Coast the issue of how discretionary trusts and private trusts relate to income support. I am willing to work through that with local constituents, but I am pleased to see that issue in this legislation and, hopefully, clarity being provided in the clients’ best interests. I support the legislation and I hope the government has been listening to my comments and will give some consideration to them.

7:25 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. As the member for Lyne said, this bill does not have a unifying theme; it is a mishmash of different issues. It achieves its aims by way of schedules, as legislation often does. The bill deals with land-use tenure and apportionment and agreements in the Northern Territory. It deals with income management in relation to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in North Queensland. It will get rid of a real anomaly in the operation of the means test with respect to pensions and gifts. It also takes into consideration the integrity of the pensions system in relation to trusts. There are some useful changes to make sure that people are not overpaid the baby bonus. The bill also deals with provisions in relation to discretionary trusts as a result of a Federal Court decision. So there are a whole host of issues dealt with in this legislation.

The first issue is land in the Northern Territory. There are three parcels of land dealt with. This bill will bring to an end any claims or potential disputation between landholders in the Northern Territory. It is important that it adds several parcels of land to schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 so they can be granted to Aboriginal land trusts. This brings to an end any claims and comes to an agreement between the traditional owners—the Central Land Council—and the Northern Territory government. This is important legislation. Any legislation that deals with native title and also land use which assists our Indigenous brothers and sisters is good and justifiable. It is important that we recognise the traditional owners of the land. This is something that I always feel is the right thing to do. I am very pleased when we see recognition of the traditional owners at a function or community event and respect is paid to them. This legislation is important to deal with those parcels of land, and I think it should be commended in that respect.

The second issue is income management regimes in the small communities of North Queensland, including Aurukun and Hopevale. The Queensland government established the Family Responsibilities Commission in order to manage people’s income in Cape York to ensure that it is used to provide the necessities of life for families and is not misused for purposes that are deleterious to children and women. The age pension and carer payment were not included in the category of welfare payments originally scheduled as being susceptible to an income management order in Cape York, so this legislation has some benefit to families and will improve the lives of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, particularly those who are vulnerable and subject to family circumstances which are not pleasant. They ensure that women and children in particular receive food, clothing and other necessities that Australians take for granted.

While I am talking about our Indigenous brothers and sisters, I note the comments made by the member for Lyne in relation to the many Aboriginal communities in his electorate. My electorate of Blair is named after Harold Blair, who grew up on the Purga mission south of Ipswich. He was a famous tenor and civil rights activist. I want to also acknowledge that we have another famous Aboriginal resident of Ipswich, the late Neville Bonner, the former Liberal Senator from Queensland. The electorate of Bonner is named after him. Neville did a lot of good in the Ipswich community and was widely respected. His wife Heather was also widely respected for her community and charity work and she did a lot of good in the Ipswich community over the years.

With respect to local Aboriginal communities, we have some very prominent Aboriginal activists and community workers in Ipswich. There is a wonderful facility called Kambu Medical Centre in Ipswich which caters for the needs of the local Indigenous people and other people as well. It is well run and well lead. I have visited there on numerous occasions and been pleased to see just how many people are cared for by that centre.

Whilst talking about the Aboriginal community in Ipswich and the western Moreton area, I want to acknowledge the great work done by the high schools, particularly in the Ipswich area—the two grammar schools provide suitable assistance to uplift our Aboriginal young people in the area—and also the work done by tremendous Catholic schools like St Mary’s and St Edmund’s, particularly with a very strong Edmund Rice social justice tradition. The high schools locally also do great work—schools like Bremer State High School, Bundamda State Secondary College and Ipswich state high, which have very high young Indigenous populations. I acknowledge the work they do. They really go about ensuring that social inclusion, social equity and social justice are important to their school communities so that people from all walks of life are given opportunities and feel included in the full community life of those schools and those school communities. I want to thank the schools for their wonderful work in that regard.

The third aspect of this legislation deals with the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. When I was in private practice as a lawyer, I had recourse to deal with the tribunal. The tribunal was given power to deal with child support matters. It deals with a number of areas of jurisdiction across social security, family assistance and of course child support. It was the case many years ago with respect to child support—or child maintenance—that if a person had to claim child maintenance they had to front up at a local magistrate’s court and bring an application to seek child maintenance from the father or the mother who was the non-custodial parent. I did thousands of those types of cases over the years.

Of course many men, particularly, failed to fulfil their obligations, and so we saw the introduction of the Child Support (Assessment) Act and the Child Support Agency, which has had success but not the degree of success which one would hope would have been achieved. Certainly there are prohibition orders; certainly the Child Support Agency can take steps; certainly the administrative assessment process is a cheaper and simpler way. There were always appeals from the Child Support Agency after internal reviews on a couple of occasions, and people could without the necessity of engaging a lawyer have their cases heard before the Child Support Agency and a child support review officer.

The legislation was then changed to ensure that matters that were on appeal could go, say, not to the courts but to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. There are amendments here which deal with a number of aspects of that particular legislation: one dealing with a new position known as an assistant senior member formalising that position. It has already been created administratively and is now recognised in the latest determination by the Remuneration Tribunal.

There are other amendments. They deal with pre-hearing conferences. It is quite mystifying to me that this legislation is necessary in a sense, because one would have thought that when you were looking at the jurisdiction and the powers of the SSAT that it would have had the power to convene a pre-hearing conference for social security and family assistance law appeals. Certainly pre-hearing conferences in my experience for more than two decades as a lawyer are crucial to resolving cases and ensuring that legal costs can be limited and that people are given a final opportunity to resolve cases before having evidence adduced before the court and having their case determined by a person who sits on the bench, whether a tribunal, a magistrate or a judge.

Empowering the SSAT to convene a pre-hearing conference is a sensible way to go about ensuring that litigants can settle their case or at least limit the issues in dispute before the tribunal and also have the hearing process explained. Most people never front up before a court, a magistrate’s court, a district, Supreme or Federal Court or even a tribunal; most people never have to do it, so it is all foreign to them. Having it explained in a simple way by someone at a pre-hearing conference increases the possibility of settlement. It explores the possibility of reducing the issues in dispute and, in the circumstance, is good value for money when it comes to the taxpayers’ dollar. It costs an enormous amount of money to run cases in court or tribunals.

The SSAT in its annual report recommended that power be given to it, and the government has seen fit to ensure the SSAT is now able to conduct prehearing conferences in relation to the conduct and consideration of those types of matters. That is a sensible outcome. It will reduce costs for litigants, ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are better directed to protracted and more difficult disputes and make clear that people can still settle cases and that there is no final need for a hearing.

Other aspects of the bill deal with the disposal of assets. This fixes an anomaly which could potentially be a harsh outcome for some people. The changes here will affect pensioners and are sensible. The Social Security Act 1991 contains legislative provisions which in effect penalise income support recipients who give away assets without adequate financial return. Where the value of assets disposed of exceeds $10,000 in a year or $30,000 in a five-year period, the value of those assets in excess of those limits is still counted among the assets of a person for the purpose of determination. The anomaly that can be overcome here is, where those assets are returned to the person, they will not be doubled-counted when assessed for means-test purposes. That is a sensible outcome. It means that pensioners will not be penalised for doing things which, in the circumstances, are just the use of their money and which they are entitled to do. It is not fair on a person, if they dispose of their assets in certain circumstances, to have them counted as their assets on that basis and then to have them counted again if they are returned to them.

The fifth aspect of the bill is the control of private trusts. The amendments relate to a recent Federal Court decision concerning this matter and known as Elliot v Secretary, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [2008], which was looked at in 2010. It relates to income support recipients who are beneficiaries of private trusts. The amendments here again are sensible. They clarify for both social security and veterans pensioners whether a particular discretionary trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. It is an important change, it is sensible, it helps people in the circumstances and it also protects the integrity of our system of taxation. The control test is necessary and it is sensible in terms of the changes.

The next section relates to the baby bonus. We saw with the third instalment of the Intergenerational report, which was released by the Treasurer very recently, that we have a real demographic challenge in this country. In 1970 we had just over seven working Australians for every person over the age of 65 years. Currently it is about five. In 2050 is going to be about 2.7 Australians for every person over the age of 65 years. That is a real challenge for us. That is a demographic tsunami that is going to come for us. We need to, therefore, increase our population, and we can do it a number of ways. We can do it by way of increasing migration, and we have done that over the years. Regardless of the views expressed by and the alarmism of those opposite on immigration matters over the years, certainly they have in a surreptitious way continued skilled migration and family reunion programs, as we have. But we can also increase our population another way—that is, by ensuring that we have more children.

The baby bonus I support. I think it has benefit. It is subject to much criticism, often unjustified. The Australian Institute of Family Studies a couple years ago did a study which indicated that it costs about a million dollars to raise a child to 18 years of age. Anyone who thinks that the amount a person receives by way of baby bonus is an incentive to have children is kidding themselves, really. Everyone who thinks about it sanely and sensibly knows that it costs a lot of money to raise a child. As someone with a 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old daughter at university, I know it costs a lot of money. The baby bonus needed to be changed in terms of the vehicle and method by which it was paid.

In 2008 the baby bonus for new births and for adoptions was converted from a lump sum payment to a series of 13 fortnightly payments. That was not sensible of the previous government and allowed the baby bonus to be criticised and, at times, abused by a small number. The change here relates to circumstances where the care of a child changes. It introduces a new requirement for the carer of a child for whom the baby bonus is paid to notify Centrelink if there is a change in circumstances. This happens at times when, say, there is a change of custodial arrangement or foster arrangement where the payment should be given to the actual person who is caring and not the initial carer who has ceased to be the primary caregiver for that child. That change is sensible, prudent and clever in all the circumstances.

This legislation should not be particularly controversial. It deals with income in relation to North Queensland Aboriginal communities, land in the Northern Territory, trusts with respect to pensioners, the baby bonus and the disposal and recouping of assets. I want to finish by saying that legislation that deals with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters should be done for their benefit, because for a long time in this country they were treated by many as second-class citizens. I hope that those days of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance are gone and I hope that the spirit of Hansonism we saw so many years ago will be eradicated from the body politic and from communities across this country. Anything we can do to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters is important. (Time expired)

7:45 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. As the previous speaker, the member for Blair, said this is something of an omnibus bill with noncontroversial measures. But it does contain references to some very important initiatives. Some of these were put into place by the previous government and have been retained by this government and like all legislation these have evolved as the particular programs bed down and as circumstances change in the community.

One of those programs is the baby bonus. This was introduced under John Howard’s leadership of the coalition government. The baby bonus was an extraordinary change for a lot of parents faced with the cost of a newborn baby. These costs are considerable whether it is buying a lot of new furniture, paying your gynaecologist or obstetrician or putting aside funds for the baby’s education. Even something like buying car restraints these days is a special cost to new parents. The baby bonus is a special support and is of assistance to new parents. At the time too we were most concerned about our declining fertility rates and ageing population in Australia. The Intergenerational report has just shown us that we continue to have a lot of challenges associated with the fact that since the baby boomer generation has moved into retirement age we have not had the same big bubble of population coming through as we did after the Second World War.

The baby bonus it is sometimes suggested ended up being used for a new flat screen television or some other special spend for the household. Let me say that it also brought financial security to a lot of families who otherwise would have struggled to buy the special equipment, clothes and health services for a new baby. I want to continue to commend the application of the baby bonus for the newborn in Australia. Also it is a serious thing when you have multiple births and the baby bonus certainly helps there. I have just come from the other place, the Main Committee, where we have been debating the need for a special day to commemorate babies who have been lost in miscarriage or stillbirths. I think that the business of having babies still remains one of life’s most significant occasions and it should be accompanied with as much joy as possible.

There is another important element in this piece of legislation which refers to income management for our Indigenous communities, in particular in Northern Australia. There can be no surprise that in a lot of those communities where work is in short supply and where education has been most disjointed it is very difficult for families to be financially independent. I have spent a lot of time researching the business of disadvantage in Indigenous communities. There was a time when Aborigines were the backbone of the pastoral industry in Northern Australia. Without Indigenous labour you would not have had the development of the pastoral industry in particular. Then there came a time when a lot of changed policies, like equal pay, were applied to the Indigenous worker. This should have been an absolute panacea and a thing to be much applauded, but it meant in fact a loss of work for Indigenous workers and a huge exodus of traditional families and clans from pastoral stations. The pastoral station would no longer tolerate whole communities living in place still carrying out their traditional ceremony and looking after their traditional country with perhaps just a few employed at particular times or given some rations at particular times if they did essential mustering and cattle work.

The history of Australian employment of Indigenous people needs to be better understood. It needs to be understood in the past in Northern Australia and certainly in Western Australia and Queensland at the times when there were indentured young Aboriginal workers who were treated as slaves. They were indentured at a very young age, six or seven, they were not paid, but they were attached to an employer. If they escaped, say on a pearling vessel or from the pastoral industry or perhaps, if they were girls, from working in laundries or doing other domestic work, they could be brought back to the employer by the police. They were released into the community as young adults often with no education whatsoever and no capacity to sustain themselves with independent work or employment for the rest of their lives.

There is a great deal of history to the current situation in many Indigenous communities where there is no recent record of work and there has been no concentrated effort to develop the skills of Indigenous individuals and communities to make the best of what work is now on offer. When we are looking at things like income management of welfare payments or aged pensions, let that be a type of management that gives back some self-respect and some better independence and less likelihood of exploitation for those in receipt of those incomes.

There is an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done, I have to say, in making sure Indigenous communities have the same access to schooling, from preschool right through to finishing secondary school. We have to make sure that Indigenous Australians have the best there is in terms of educational capital, buildings and equipment, and human capital with the best teachers possible leading on to employment that is not discriminatory and gives people every opportunity to achieve their heart’s desire. This bill has a range of measures which are designed to assist. In particular I have referred to income management in the Northern Territory and the baby bonus. There are other references to people on boards and so on, to family assistance and to child support. It is as we say a noncontroversial bill and I commend it to the House.

7:51 pm

Photo of Gary GrayGary Gray (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. This is an important bill that amends various acts in the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio. Today I want to focus on the impact this bill will have on communities in Northern Australia. Previous speakers made reference to other provisions of this bill: trusts, the Child Support Agency, the baby bonus and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. Among other things it will deliver ownership of three parcels of land back to traditional owners. It will also introduce provisions in social security laws to improve the operation of income management.

The consequences of this bill are significant. It will build upon Northern Australia’s economy and address Indigenous disadvantage by delivering parcels of land back to traditional owners. It will provide Indigenous people with greater autonomy and employment opportunities. It will reform the way land claims are dealt with. As the Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia, I am acutely aware of the unique challenges which are faced by the north and the vision, courage, faith, cooperation, blind luck and leadership required to meet these challenges. I am also aware of the goodwill on both sides of the chamber to ensure that we meet these challenges—challenges of better housing, effective education, healthy communities and better jobs.

Schedule 1 of the bill will allow for parcels of land to be granted to Aboriginal land trusts. The land parcels include the Alice Valley Extension (East), Loves Creek and Patta near Tennant Creek. The first two schedules will bring claims over these areas to an end. Previously, the Loves Creek parcel was the subject of a partially heard land claim. It was clear from early in the hearings that traditional Aboriginal ownership was undeniable. Loves Creek belongs to the Eastern Arrernte people and is used to move cattle from the Aboriginal owned Loves Creek Station to the Kunturlpara Aboriginal Cattle Corporation in the Barkly. Delivering this land back to the traditional owners will provide more resources to Aboriginal pastoralists. It will provide better jobs and a better way of running those businesses.

Patta is also the subject of an agreement between the Central Land Council and the Northern Territory government. It will form part of an agreement for settling broader native title claims. The parcel of land known as Patta includes an important site, Devils Pebbles. The Pattu people have been looking after Devils Pebbles for years. The inclusion of this parcel of land will allow the traditional owners to become involved in the management of mining operations in the area. Again, this will be related to economic opportunities, to jobs and to Aboriginal people getting a better go.

The Alice Valley Extension (East) parcel of land is an extension of the West Macdonnell National Park. It belongs to the Western Arrernte people and is part of 13 parks and reserves which were the subject of land claims under the act. This stems from a landmark agreement struck in 2003 between the Northern Territory government and the traditional Aboriginal owners about the administration of tenures and reserves in this area. The granting of this land is quite simply the right thing to do. It will give Indigenous people greater autonomy through potential employment in parks and increase pastoral opportunities which will support local economies. In the three measures that I have mentioned, we will see the opportunity for economic activity in the pastoral industry, in park management and in mining—substantial opportunities for the creation of jobs and real incomes that will drive better conditions for families into the future.

This bill will deliver solid benefits to the tourism industry, enhance conservation interests and provide visitors to national parks in the region with an enhanced cultural experience. The bill recognises the cultural heritage of national parks and the role Indigenous people play in managing their country at both a government and a public level. The bill will continue the process of delivering parks and reserves to traditional owners. It will give the custodians of these places greater involvement in their care and protection along with flexible employment arrangements. The significance of providing traditional owners with tenure of this land and engagement in its future management can no longer be overlooked. The bill will significantly move the native title claims process forward.

Schedule 2 of the bill will change income management provisions in social security law by enabling income management of age pension and carer payments to be included in the Cape York welfare reform trial. In cases where a person subsequently re-enters income management, the amendments will allow outstanding funds from previous income management periods to be retained in their income management account instead of being paid out in cash. In the case of a person on income management dying, the administrators will have additional means to disburse funds to their next of kin.

Existing legislative requirements prevent people in Cape York communities who receive a carer’s payment or the age pension from having their payments income managed. The Family Responsibilities Commission will be able to act on requests for voluntary income management from all customers and order income management to address dysfunctional behaviours. This change is supported by the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, the Queensland government and the Family Responsibilities Commission. It will ensure that income management is both targeted and prioritised. The bill also provides for additional amendments to the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio. It will improve the operation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and provide amendments to the baby bonus.

The government is improving the future for Northern Australia. The Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill aims to address the very real social issues of the north, including displacement and lack of opportunity for Indigenous people. The bill will work towards improved infrastructure, social investment, Indigenous employment arrangements and giving greater autonomy to the Aboriginal people of the north. It is an outstanding example of how we should be investing in the north by providing more opportunity for Indigenous people. These amendments are necessary. They will improve local economies in the north and introduce social security laws to address dysfunctional behaviour in the region.

I support the bill, and I look forward to continuing to represent the north through my portfolio work. This bill delivers a shared vision—the shared vision that we on both sides of this place have. It is a shared vision for the north and for Indigenous people. It is a demonstration of the continually evolving and developing system of support for families and communities by all sides of politics, as it so often is in this place, in that the things that unite us are so often more important than the things that divide us. I commend this bill to the House.

7:59 pm

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009 is a minor portfolio bill for the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio. The bill includes some amendments to schedule three further parcels of land in the Northern Territory so they can be granted as Aboriginal land. The parcels of land concerned are Alice Valley Extension (East), Loves Creek and Patta near Tennant Creek.

The income management provisions in the social security law are amended by this bill to improve the operation of the provisions in several minor ways. The first amendment will enable people in the Cape York welfare reform areas who are receiving age pension or carer payment to have their payments income managed. This amendment is at the request of the Families Responsibilities Commission, and the new provisions will apply as per current arrangements to income management in Cape York. The second and third income management amendments relate to the use of residual funds in an income management account.

The bill also makes amendments to improve the operation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in its handling of the social security, family assistance and child support matters. An example of this group of amendments is the change to titles of tribunal members, such as renaming the executive director the principal member. This change brings consistency with the titles used in similar Commonwealth tribunals. The bill removes the requirement for the principal member to chair panels on which he or she sits by allowing the principal member to determine who will be the presiding member.

The bill refines and improves legislation provided by a previous Labor government to set up the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, whose purpose was to help the unfortunate—those people with disabilities, the elderly, single parents and their suffering children—keep a roof over their heads, adequate food on their table and blankets on their beds when these basic things were threatened by bureaucratic errors and injustices in the one department, Social Security, then in charge of their lives. The tribunal’s responsibilities have grown since then, and it now reviews, questions and often overturns decisions made under social security law, family assistance law and, since 2007, child support law. The aim then, as now, was to rescue those who had fallen between the cracks of our society, however briefly and however unjustly. The people to be assisted here are not dole bludgers but rather those who we wish to help: those who are suffering want, poverty, panic or homelessness because of a lack of legal advice, misinformation or errors of proper bureaucratic process. It is to help those that have lost what may be their only lifeline for themselves and their families. It is there to help those in need of a system which gives them not just a theoretical right but the practical power to challenge incorrect or unjust decisions. That the SSAT is still needed is shown by the 13,000 applications lodged with it in the last financial year.

There are two measures in the bill regarding the income support means test. In the first, as detailed in the pension reforms announced in the 2009 budget, the rules around gifting are to be clarified. Under these amendments, once a gift has been returned and therefore is counted under the assets test, it is no longer assessed also as a deprived asset under the social security disposal of assets provisions. This removes any potential for the double counting of an asset for a person who disposes of the asset in certain circumstances. The second means test amendment clarifies that, where the customer is the beneficiary of a discretionary trust and the trustee has the duty to maintain the customer, the trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. These amendments secure longstanding policy in light of a recent full Federal Court case.

The rest of the amendments in the bill provide a requirement for a claimant to notify if a child who attracted baby bonus leaves the claimant’s care within 26 weeks of birth or coming into their care. The bill also makes further minor and technical amendments.

We are a government that believes in social inclusion and believes that we have a responsibility to help those who are vulnerable or perhaps are at a vulnerable stage in their life cycle. This can be clearly seen in our actions towards Australians with disability. Despite the best efforts of many advocates, people with disability remain in many ways second-class citizens in our society. Too many people with disability live in what amounts to internal exile in a country which is in denial of their existence, their uniqueness, their numbers and, indeed, their cries of the heart. Those things which many take for granted in Australia—a job we like, a house we may aspire to own outright and retirement years in comfort as respected elders of our tribe—they dare not hope for or even dream of. Not in this lifetime, sadly.

We have not got into this position overnight, and pulling ourselves out of it will take years if not decades, but we are making a start. The government has worked with the states to improve the amount of support we offer people with disability. A national agreement signed in 2008 includes $1.9 billion to fund more than 24,000 supported accommodation, respite and in-home care places. A further $408 million will fund services and reforms to the disability services system as part of the National Disability Reform Agenda. The Commonwealth’s contribution to state-run disability services will reach more than $1.25 billion a year by the end of the agreement in 2013. This compares to $620 million in 2007.

One of the programs that is already making a difference is the one-off $100 million provided to the states in June 2008 to allow them to build an extra 313 beds by June 2012 for people with serious disabilities incapable of looking after themselves. This was done to take some of the burden away from ageing carers who have reluctant sainthood thrust upon them and who spend their lives consumed by the worry and anxiety of what will happen in the event that they predecease their adult children with severe or profound disabilities.

The $100 million was provided to the states, and all states and territories are on track to deliver their targets. New South Wales already has 35 beds occupied and has reported to us that it will have its target of 100 beds built by mid-2011. Western Australia, I am pleased to report, will build 46 beds instead of its target of 30. Victoria has contributed its own funding to extend its target from 70 to 100 beds and will have its beds completed by mid-2011. I am pleased to say that, whilst many of these beds are still not completed in terms of construction, we are able to report that for every venue of supported accommodation we have the address and the designation of whether or not it has been designed or, indeed, whether construction has started.

Our government is not content to simply push for new funding into an old system, as welcome as that funding is. We recognise that there is need for major reform in disability; for game changing ideas. Indeed, the ageing of our population gives us a new urgency to reform how we fund disability in this country. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports to us that in 2010 we have 1.5 million Australians who live with severe or profound disability. This number will increase to 2.3 million people by 2030. Recent trends indicate that demand for specialist disability services will grow by around seven per cent a year in real terms over the next decade as ageing carers can no longer support their children or their spouses.

Despite the best efforts of hundreds of thousands of unpaid carers and thousands of professional carers who work in the disability sector, we have a disability system which remains a patchwork of services, crisis driven and problematic for all those who come into contact with it. People are struggling to cope with the current demand, let alone the future demand.

It is clear that the current system, which has lasted so many years, cannot go on forever. That is why the Rudd government has asked the Productivity Commission to investigate a national long-term care and support scheme. This kind of scheme, which has huge and growing support amongst people with disability and their carers, has the potential to change the way that disability is supported in this country. The challenge for people with disability and their carers is to be empowered: to move from being treated as charity to being consumers; to move from people who compete for scarce scraps of rationed support to people who are funded on the basis of need; and to move from people who at every stage in the life cycle meet collisions of the system to understanding that a person with a disability should have the opportunity throughout their whole life to have seamless support so that they can be empowered to be equal citizens in our great Commonwealth. I believe a national disability insurance scheme will provide a better deal for people with disability. It is something that we owe our fellow Australians with disability, their families and carers, who struggle every day to pay the bills, to get adequate care and to find work.

This is not a challenge for those who would be fainthearted, or—to use the colloquialism—wimpy. The argument for a disability insurance scheme is not just a moral one; it is one of responsible economic management, of productivity and of planning for the future of our ageing population. Australian governments at all levels spend approximately $20 billion a year in total on the disability welfare system—around $8 billion on payments for community care and support providers, nearly $3 billion on family payments and other important payments to other carers and nearly $9 billion on income support through the disability pension for over 700,000 Australians. When one adds to this the indirect costs of disability—the cost, for instance, of keeping people who have an intellectual disability, perhaps measured by an IQ below 70, in jails, when such people make up 20 per cent of the prison population; and the cost to the health system ignored and treated too late—we realise the staggering economic outlay that is already underway in our disability systems in Australia.

Starting in April of this year, the Productivity Commission, assisted by an associate productivity commissioner, will look into the costs, benefits and feasibility of approaches which provide essential care and support on an entitlement basis for eligible people with a severe or profound disability. It is not automatic that their recommendations will say that a no-fault social insurance model is the answer, but it is certainly the mission of the Productivity Commission to look at a no-fault social insurance model reflecting the shared cost of disability across the population and to evaluate its feasibility.

I understand that such a scheme will be a massive task to implement. It has an effect on and interaction with our health system, our schools, medical negligence and existing road accident and workers compensation schemes. We do not wish to disrupt that which is already working, but we should recognise that six in every eight Australians do not acquire their injury traumatically but rather through birth or the onset of ageing. Indeed, of those who acquire their injuries traumatically, only half of them have compensable legal claims. The detail is complex, and it will be complex. But we have given the Productivity Commission the time and the tools to do the job properly. They will be supported by an independent panel to help provide insight and access to those with disabilities and to apply their own unique knowledge in terms of reforming the system.

We are not a government that shies away from major reform. The system took many years to get to where it is, and we do not expect results overnight. However, Labor governments in the past have fought cynicism and opposition to introduce programs like Medicare and compulsory superannuation. We are carrying on that legacy by tackling the long-neglected task of major reform in disability; of making visible people who are too often invisible, ignored and left out of debate in our country—people who live a form of de facto exile in the lucky country.

Our government, the Rudd government, is committed to social inclusion. We are committed to moving people with disability from the margins to the centre of our society. Our nation is a small nation on the edge of booming Asia. We can no longer afford to have 1½ million people with a severe or profound disability and ½ million carers marginalised. We need everyone to enjoy the benefits and the fruits of Australian society. We do this because we believe it is not right for a generous, clever and wealthy 21st century nation—a privileged nation such as Australia—to have so many people who are shut out and denied the opportunities available to the rest of the population.

Across the broader community services portfolio we are working to deliver real results for the most vulnerable people in Australia. For our actions to close the gap in Indigenous affairs, for our initiatives in employment and increasing payments to carers and pensioners, this bill continues the fine work that is being done by the government.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.