House debates

Monday, 25 October 2021


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2021; Second Reading

6:05 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2021, and I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes:

(a) the proposed pilot remote engagement program is intended to replace the current remote employment program, the Community Development Program (CDP);

(b) the Government are the architects of the current failed CDP and the bill again delays long-overdue changes to this program;

(c) concerns this bill could entrench a welfare model, rather than job creation, economic development and self-determination; and

(d) this bill does not address fundamental issues in remote Australia such as housing and essential services; and

(2) calls on the Government to adopt Labor's policy of a remote employment program with real jobs, proper wages with full conditions, and meaningful community control".

The amendment asks the House to do five things: note that the proposed pilot remote engagement program is intended to replace the current remote employment program, the Community Development Program, or CDP; that the government are the architects of the current failed CDP, and the bill again delays long-overdue changes to this program; concerns this bill could entrench a welfare model rather than job creation, economic development and self-determination; and that this bill does not address fundamental issues in remote Australia, such as housing and essential services; and, finally, call on the government to adopt Labor's policy of a remote employment program with real jobs, proper wages with full conditions, and meaningful community control.

The government's remote engagement program pilot is yet another missed opportunity to, firstly, put in place a genuine remote employment service and, secondly, address the underlying challenges of living in remote Australia. The challenges of living in remote Australia are many and well known. On average, remote Australians have shorter lives, higher levels of disease and injury and poorer access to health services compared with people living in metropolitan areas. This is caused by multiple factors. In addition to a lack of real jobs, there is a lack of adequate housing and access to essential services. This bill will do nothing to address any of the challenges. Instead, this government has brought forward a bill offering a fig leaf of changes and a two-year pilot program. These changes are bad in themselves, and they won't make things better for remote Australians. The problem that Labor has identified is that the bill just won't make anything better. An Albanese Labor government would never have brought forward this bill, which is a great disappointment.

It was just last year that the government signed up to revised targets in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, including the reduction of overcrowded housing. This bill was a first test for the government, and what we see is that nothing will fundamentally change for CDP participants and remote communities and that there is no new remote employment program on the horizon. Meanwhile, the challenges of living in remote Australia are very real, and they need to be fixed and fixed now.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that almost one in five Indigenous Australians are living in chronically overcrowded housing—nationally, 18 per cent of First Nations people, compared to 5 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. The level of overcrowding increases with remoteness—over 20 per cent of adults in regional areas and over 48 per cent of adults in remote communities. The highest levels of overcrowding in Australia occur in remote Northern Territory. Based on the 2016 census, about 27,600 Aboriginal Territorians live in overcrowded houses, of whom 10,700 are considered homeless. This lack of adequate housing and this overcrowding affect every aspect of community life It increases the levels of domestic violence, suicide, poor mental health, lack of safety, poor hygiene and the spread of diseases.

Just recently, Australians witnessed a frightening example of how rapidly disease will spread through an Indigenous community trying to deal with overcrowding when the Indigenous residents of Wilcannia had to contend with COVID-19 and its deadly consequences. We all saw the impact; we all witnessed First Nations residents with a positive COVID test forced to live in makeshift tents in their front yards just to protect their families. And it was not a one-off occurrence. It happened again and again until the government was shamed into acting. The virus spread fast because of the lack of a national vaccine strategy for Indigenous people and because of chronic overcrowding, a problem that is well known at all levels of government.

The overcrowding experienced by First Nations people is a national shame, and this government continues to have no long-term national housing strategy for First Nations people. In the May budget this year the government offered hope to end CDP and replace it with a new program targeting jobs and skills development, and it flagged that mutual obligation requirements would be relaxed during the development of this new remote jobs program. But in the end, all that was being offered was a two-year trial of new approaches to undertaking 'work-like' activities. While there is no explanation of what 'work-like' activities actually means, we do know it doesn't mean real jobs. We also know that individuals who volunteered for this trial stay on JobSeeker. So the new remote engagement program under trial is just another work-for-the-dole scheme—CDP by another name.

This is such a disappointment. The government has not kept its promise of replacing the CDP program targeting jobs and skills development. It's just a fiddle with the policy and rebranding. The government should adopt Labor's policy for remote employment services. A Labor government will replace CDP with a genuine remote employment program, one that puts in place the best elements of the former Community Development Employment Program, the old CDEP, a program that creates real local jobs with proper wages and conditions and which offers meaningful community control and a pathway to self-determination.

I remind the House that the CDP was designed and implemented by this government. It is a broken and discriminatory program that has been operating under various iterations since 2015. Its purpose was to put in place a welfare-dependent employment service program, a remote work-for-the-dole program, but one that was much harsher, with many more compliance requirements than was expected for jobseekers in other regions in Australia. It took just two years: in 2017 a Senate inquiry into the effectiveness and appropriateness of CDP found that the program was an abject failure. Expert witnesses to the inquiry argued that CDP was discriminatory, that it actually acted against job creation and that CDP was acting as a pool of cheap labour. These experts also said CDP was damaging because more than 50 per cent of all penalties imposed on jobseekers across Australia were for people on CDP. These penalties occurred because Centrelink was not able to take into consideration the family, social, cultural and community obligations on members of an Indigenous community. The repeated breaches and imposed penalties resulted in the loss of income payments, causing financial distress and increasing poverty. The difficulties of staying on the CDP have seen an increase in disengagement from the program, and more local crime and family violence. These outcomes are well known, and that is why Labor is saying this bill is another wasted opportunity for the government. Why is the government being so stubborn? Why is it unable to listen to remote Indigenous communities and leaders?

What was it about the CDEP that made it so positive for remote Australia? Under the CDEP, jobseekers could do more than just receive their unemployment benefits. They could take on real local jobs created and administered by local First Nations communities, paid at minimum wage rates for hours worked. The program offered a genuine alternative to being on welfare while still contributing to their communities, and there were flow-on benefits for the community—meaningful control and a pathway to self-determination. The scheme operated under a flexible funding model that allowed communities to complete self-identified projects. This government appears to genuinely have a problem with the idea of Indigenous self-determination.

Over the years the government has attempted to reform the CDP and make it less onerous. The first attempt was in December 2015, just six months after the program had started. The changes were strongly criticised by Indigenous stakeholders and service providers because of a lack of consultation. In the end, this amending bill lapsed because no-one supported it.

In December 2017 the government tried again. This time it issued a discussion paper canvassing three options for reform, including a new wage base similar to the CDP. But when the bill finally came forward in 2018 it had added a target compliance framework—a demerit system—and the subsidised wage scheme was limited to just 6,000 CDP participants. These changes were again sharply rejected by stakeholders because, again, no-one had been consulted, and, again, the bill lapsed.

In 2019 the government tried again to get to the bottom of remote-jobseeker concerns and undertook an evaluation of the CDP. In summary, it found that more participants than not thought the CDP had been bad for their communities and that the high penalty rates were discouraging people from participation. So many remote young people were just not receiving income support, because to stay on the CDP was just too hard. Yet here we go again; the government has come back to the parliament with a bill for emerging employment services it has not consulted on.

Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory, APO NT, told a Senate committee on the legislation: 'What the government still fails to understand is that CDP participants are already trained. They have worked and will work if there are jobs available.' And the data shows that nothing is changing for remote Indigenous communities under a work-for-the-dole program. APO NT also told us that over the last decade the employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in remote Australia has grown, and that the poverty and social harms that arise from this have increased. Independent analysis has found that the CDP has contributed to this growing gap.

Labor has many concerns with this bill and its pilot program, primarily because it is such a missed opportunity. While the bill contains very little detail on how it will be designed and implemented, it does establish the remote engagement participation payment, a supplementary payment to income support. The payment of up to $190 a fortnight for 104 weeks will be offered for undertaking work-like activities in community identified placements, but it is only for 200 participants in the five pilot sites. That's about 40 people for each site. This is not reform. This is delay.

Because the minister will be the decision-maker on all matters relating to the pilot program, only he knows what the new compliance regime will be. But what we do know about the pilot is that the participants will not be offered the normal protections of other workers, like wages, leave entitlements and superannuation. They will not be offered a traineeship or apprenticeship and have no guarantee of a real job at the end of two years. We cannot determine whether the pilot program will be discriminatory or compatible with human rights. The minister has told the parliament that the lack of operational detail is because the government need to be flexible in developing the new program and we should take them on trust, but the government have broken many of their promises to First Nations people. The most recent was their failure to deliver a voice to the parliament, a referendum on constitutional recognition in this term of government and a national vaccine strategy for First Nations people. This government cannot be trusted to improve the lives of First Nations participants on CDP.

Labor would never have brought forward this bill. First Nations people do not need another quick fix to a welfare program and a rehash of the same old failed policies. They need the government to address the underlying challenge affecting lives and holding people back. A Labor government will not make the same mistakes. We will not only end CDP; we will listen to First Nations people and put in place the program they want, one that generates economic growth and creates job opportunities, because there is no substitute for paid employment. Our program will be implemented by our Aboriginal community controlled service providers and include large-scale Indigenous employers in remote Australia. Their expertise will be central to the design of any new employment program.

In conclusion, the government has yet again missed an opportunity and offered the parliament minor tweaks to a major problem. We don't need a pilot. First Nations people need a new employment program implemented across the whole country. What is the use of a trial in only five locations when a good employment program should be flexible enough to be tailored to the needs of every community from the beginning? The parliament has two options: to support the sliver of change being offered or to reject the bill outright. Because the situation in remote Indigenous communities has become so dire, Labor will not stand in the way of the passage of this bill. The participation payment will provide a benefit for some CDP participants and their communities. For the other 29,500-plus active CDP jobseekers who will not receive the payment or participate in the pilot, nothing will change. They must remain on CDP until sometime in the future. Labor does not consider this to be a good outcome, and so I ask the minister: go back and listen to First Nations people again and redesign your program to one that delivers for all on CDP, a program that will actually get people into work, gives on country young people opportunities and truly helps to end poverty in remote communities.

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications and Cyber Security) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I'll state the question in the form that the amendment be disagreed to.

6:24 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] This is an important change to social security law in remote Indigenous Australia. There is a long history of battling to make sure that the opportunities we enjoy in the cities and regions are also available in Central and remote Australia. And it's a timely reminder that, right now, Indigenous Australia has been exploring, as recently as last week at the Aboriginal Economic Development Forum in Alice Springs, potential opportunities to unlock the Aboriginal estate; and to recall that, by 2030, perhaps half of Australia's landmass will be under Indigenous control, and we need to make sure that Indigenous Australians can be maximising their opportunities for cultural, economic and social self-determination. There's plenty of that kind of talk in the parliament, but, in reality, how many of us have actually lived in a remote community to understand how it works?

Having listened to the member for Barton give a speech clearly written by someone else and basically read out word for word, it's of enormous frustration that there's certainly no reform zeal from the party that have consistently made out that they lead the way in social policy and in Indigenous policy reform. Quite clearly, the federal opposition are all about moving the lips just sufficiently to not offend anyone and to walk both sides of the street, making out that they're defending the needs of those in remote Australia but also doing the right thing by those in the city and being seen to be appeasing the bleeding hearts that insist on these terrible generalisations that come out of the left wing—that every young Indigenous person wants to be either a ranger or a painter, and it's simply not the case.

Aboriginal Australia have moved on from the Australian Labor Party, and they're about making the most of opportunities that are increasingly coming to remote Australia. But, before we can get there, we do need a fit-for-purpose social services system and we don't have that at present. That's despite the efforts of two sides of government. As an employee of ATSIS in 2004 and, arguably, one of their last employees—I was paid out long after the organisation ceased to exist—as a consultant I saw firsthand exactly what was going on in education, employment and housing entities, and I was, among other things, reviewing how CDEP worked. Listening to a Labor Party politician, let alone a shadow minister, talking about CDEP as if it was creating real local jobs and a genuine alternative to welfare—that is an urban-based Indigenous Australian who clearly has never lived in a remote community to understand how it is out there. You quite simply cannot expect these kinds of outcomes that she describes, a pathway to self-determination, from programs like this alone. What's needed is an honest conversation.

We've got 16 Close the Gap targets, so many that no-one can remember them all, and virtually no-one in this country wakes up and makes it a mission to close the gap. There are simply too many of them. It's fine to have a blizzard of Close the Gap targets, but it starts off with the somewhat paternalistic notion that they need to catch up to us. I firmly believe that Indigenous Australia can be better than us—that the black brand can be something that the world seeks. This is not about closing a gap. This is about, in many cases, Indigenous Australians moving ahead of the way we see the world, if they haven't already, and exploiting and maximising the opportunities available to them. But what have they got to do for that to happen?

We need some honest conversation about the importance of senior men and women in an Indigenous society that simply doesn't exist in mainstream. We've set up a welfare system that weakens, erodes and undermines the senior men and women who should be having more of a say on the ground. This is not about regional and state voices to parliament. This is about local voices, full stop. Until you're listening to local voices, not undermining them with these individualised welfare models that work very well everywhere else but don't work in remote Australia—and then we use the overlay of community funding arrangements to cause internecine disputes and squabbles over funding, and we have supracommunity groups, such as, and dare I say it, very good people on land councils.

But, as long as land councils are doing the stuff that families need to be looking after for themselves, there will still be an agentive challenge. We need to be honest that the work of land councils, some of it good, some of it maybe not, needs to come back to family groups. There's nowhere else in the world where we basically expropriate our own financial services and our financial matters off to another body when we do not actually know what we own in the body. It's one thing to use technology like blockchain to identify exactly who the trusted authorities are and exactly who owns what, but we don't have that at all. We're seeing money funnelling across into these other agencies and, rightly, questions on the ground about whether this is working in the interests of individual family groups.

If there is one message I would leave today as we try again for a new set of pilot assessments for a better way of community economic development in remote Australia, be it small, be it modest—and it needs to start small and then be replicated when successful—it would be to identify the senior men and women in kinship and clan groups and work with them for a solution just for their family group. If there are three, four or five of them—however many there are in a community—that's so many conversations we will have to ensure no-one is left out. We need a menu of training, employment and education options for every working-age adult and every teenager on their way to becoming a working-age adult, to give them a solution. And we need more opportunities than there is demand for them, remembering that, like everyone, people will fail, change their minds and try something new. That has to be accounted for.

You may be listening in today to this debate and wondering which side of this green chamber is actually looking out for the family connection to land, this absolutely understood relationship between family and their land and sea. There has to be a recognition that the senior people in these families need to have more say but also carry far more responsibility for the conduct of their family members. But the last thing we want to be doing, as I've said before, is expropriating out these kinds of decisions to community councils or non-elected bodies or government officials or land councils, for goodness sake. These decisions need to be with the families themselves, or we are absolutely certain to be beset by more failure.

Australians living in remote Australia know it's a complex environment. They don't need us talking about it like we're giving a Close the Gap speech once a year, particularly from an opposition spokesperson for the Labor Party. This speech would have broken thousands of hearts around the country, simply because of the lack of vision, the lack of understanding about how it is out in remote Australia. We understand, in mainstream Australia, having lived in business conditions for five centuries, that two-thirds of businesses don't employ anyone. We know that 95 per cent of them fail in the first two years. We know that only one per cent of businesses employ more than four people. Just switching on the business switch alone doesn't solve any problems; it's a series of options that come together to provide opportunities.

If you're a young Indigenous person at high school right now in remote Australia—and you could be a fair way from home—I challenge you to talk to your community leaders, like the one you just heard speaking before me, and say: 'What is your plan for my community? Where are the jobs earmarked for me on my country?' I understand you don't all want to be rangers and dot painters—and I don't dismiss Aboriginal art in any condescending manner; I'm saying that young Aboriginal Australians don't all want to be painters because they tell me that. They want the full range of economic opportunities. To deliver those opportunities to remote Australia takes ingenuity, planning and making unique arrangements, but I want to say one very clear thing: the cost of a better running system is a fraction of the status quo with the enormous social, housing, incarceration, health and education costs that we currently bear. Noel Pearson has said that so clearly. There is only a way out of this causal web of dysfunction if people like the member for Barton can put their speaking notes down and actually identify a community where the conversation has to be led, guided, by senior Aboriginal men and women on how everyone has something to do.

As a government, you can't step into the lives of every family. I know as a doctor I can't kick a door down to go in and deliver public health, but to have a mature conversation begins with both major parties recognising the failures of the past. I've said already that 27 years ago I had my first experience living in a semidesert community in the Northern Territory, on and off for 15 months. Twenty-seven years prior to that, just up the road, at Daguragu and Wave Hill, the land was handed back in that symbolic moment with the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. You'd have to say, Deputy Speaker, there have been a few moments since when we all hoped for change. We all hoped that then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology was going to make a difference. I've tagged it enough times in things I've said: more practical, less symbolism. I'll continue to stand for that in public life and ultimately will be proven correct. No-one's saying symbolism isn't important, but too many of us have used it as cover to get away with not changing anything on the ground. It's hard. There are special interests and divided responsibilities. Money flows in, primarily from these social service and welfare payments, and, in a single pass, that non-Indigenous dollar shoots back out of the community, usually through the local store, through buying goods that aren't manufactured in the community and not cultivating or encouraging any services for Indigenous people in that community are delivered by that community themselves.

What we've created is a unique economy in remote Australia where the residents make no goods that their fellow residents want to use, they deliver no services privately that anyone is prepared to pay for, and we're left with publicly funded welfare and imported cheap goods that are dumped into the store as a way of siphoning welfare back out of these communities as fast as possible. In the absence of any value adding, in the absence of any vertical integration, in the absence of any multiplier effect, this is the most corrosive economic model we could have imposed on our First Australians. We have managed to do it and we give lip service to how passionate we are about changing it. But we are yet to have, even in one community—save perhaps the Cape York work and the Cape York Institute—one conversation about how we might change that. We are yet to have one conversation that looks forward five years, identifies the children in high school or even finishing primary school, and says: 'We are a town council, we are a land council. My job today is to provision for those young people five years from now. Where will they work, study, train? How will they orbit out of their community when they need to? How do we account for a culturally safe employment arrangement where, should they need to return to their communities, they can?'

If I had my way, every Indigenous Australian leaving a remote community would have in their hand a flight ticket back to their community to use at any time social requirements mean they need to return urgently. We have to be flexible around the importance of family in Indigenous Australia. It is something that we in the mainstream are yet to grasp. If you talk to mining companies, they'll say, 'We put 20 on but we're lucky to get three to show up.' Well, start having the conversations about having an Indigenous-friendly system that allows these workers to be confident to go to work and stay at work. We have way too many yellow hi-vis vests, way too many payments that aren't being attached to employment. (Quorum formed) This is probably a good time to wind up as well. I will just say that this trial, which effectively provides a minimum wage type employment— (Time expired)

6:41 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] You can't get much more offensive than the member for Bowman. His behaviour is really something else, and he keeps outdoing himself. I would like to thank the shadow minister, the member for Barton, for her contribution and for setting out in an excellent way our concerns with the CDP. The member for Bowman and the government can be assured that, on taking federal government, we will put in place a program that is much more effective than what is currently being done or even proposed.

I probably just need to just say one other thing. The member for Bowman asked the question, 'Where are the jobs on communities?' He says, 'Where are the jobs in those remote communities?' Someone may want to remind him that he's part of a government that has been governing Australia and responsible for Indigenous affairs and the issues pertaining to this bill, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2021, for eight years. So maybe he should ask his own colleagues where they are and be a bit more constructive if he thinks he has any good ideas. Many people have been to remote Indigenous communities. Some are constructive; some grandstand. I would expect more of a member of parliament, but that's obvious.

The seriously flawed CDP scheme has had a massively negative effect on remote Aboriginal communities, particularly here in the Northern Territory. It has increased poverty and social harm while purporting to be designed to do the opposite: to alleviate poverty. The CDP has stunted remote job creation because it essentially created a pool of thousands of people who have had to work simply to get Centrelink unemployment benefits rather than focus on building local communities and local economies. So much of the work that they did was similar to that already being done by local governments or by NGOs, and in many cases it wasn't useful work; it was just a box-ticking, time-killing sort of scheme. What it was really doing was killing the time of First Nations Australians. It didn't enrich the communities, it wasn't sustainable and, unlike the CDEP program that it replaced, it did not do those things. But I will get to the CDEP in a little while.

We know that over the last decade, the employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in remote Australia has grown and that the CDP has helped it to grow. The coalition government has known for a long time about the CDP's major failures; after all, it has been five years since the Senate inquiry into the effectiveness and appropriateness of the CDP. Again, you have to ask those opposite speaking on this bill about what they've been saying for the last five years when we all knew how ineffective and inappropriate this program was. Those opposite, members of the government, only ended the program this year.

So now to the new Regional Engagement Program, the REP. I honestly don't think it will do much to improve things, so the question is: why does the coalition not care about creating real jobs in remote First Nations communities? The Regional Engagement Program is just another disappointing work-for-the-dole scheme. It repeats one of the major problems of the CDP, which is requiring people to work without proper pay and workplace protections. Those opposite just refuse to admit what we already know, that so many people on the current CDP are already trained and can work in real jobs if they're available. We're wasting their exceptional skills and talents to produce local economic development—something the coalition says they're experts in: developing economies. After eight years, there's nothing much to be seen. The member for Bowman even confirmed that in his contribution earlier.

The REP has a supplementary payment which will benefit a small number of remote Indigenous jobseekers, only about 200 people. However, about 40,000 of the remaining CDP participants in remote communities will continue to struggle in poverty, with no real change until at least 2024—which is three years from now! So this failure of a government, after not creating local economies in remote Australia—not caring to do that for eight years—and having known how inappropriate their program is for five years, has put in place this legislation, which will be another three years of failure if there's not another change of government at the next federal election. There will be more handwringing, if that were to be the case, about closing the gap targets missed. So we really need that change of federal government at this upcoming election.

We need a federal Labor government that understands these issues intimately, that cares for these communities, and that will work with the Aboriginal people and communities to develop their communities and local economies so that the First Nations people living and working there are able to move out of poverty with that support, working in conjunction with all levels of government and the non-government sector. But we must remember that we're talking about a federal government, the coalition, that doesn't support the Uluru Statement from the Heart. They say they are listening. They say Aboriginal people should be listened to and have things done with them, not to them. The reality is very different. The acting NT children's Commissioner, Sally Sievers, and the director of Save the Children for the NT and WA, Noelene Swanson, recently said that every third child in the NT is living in poverty. That's on the current federal government's watch. After eight years of neglect and five years of knowing that CDP wasn't effective or appropriate, they are now putting in place a name change that will essentially lead to three more years of failure if they are not replaced.

What federal Labor wants and will deliver in government is a program that supports First Nations people in ongoing, sustainable work which will cut dependency on welfare and strengthen First Nations communities and businesses. As the shadow minister, the member for Barton, said, it has to have Aboriginal community controlled service providers in remote regions to make it a reality, to make it happen. We've known for decades that this is the best way to achieve long-lasting success in this area. It needs to include Indigenous employers who hire people on a large scale throughout remote Australia. We need to use their experience, their expertise, the hard work they have done and what they've developed in this space.

Recently, the NT government launched its new 10-year education engagement strategy. We know that too many children aren't engaged in school and with their education, for lots of complex reasons. The NT government recognises that a holistic approach supporting kids in remote communities is needed. That includes investing in better housing and health care and in early education. It also recognises that young First Nations people need to be taught within the framework of their own culture and their own language. A good way to do this, and where the new REP could do something useful, is to tap into the skills of our remote communities and families as teachers for our remote kids.

We could also do more on the ranger programs. Last week I met with the Larrakia Rangers in my electorate of Solomon, in Darwin. In a bipartisan way, I commend the government for the funding they've recently given to the Larrakia Rangers and the Northern Land Council through the Ranger Capability Building Grants Program. We need to see a lot more Indigenous business development. We need to see genuine commitment to self-determination and community based governance and support which will see economic growth in our remote communities.

I want to acknowledge a couple of Indigenous businesses that are doing exceptional things in my electorate. I acknowledge House of Darwin and Shaun Edwards. This is a social enterprise. It is a for-profit clothing company that designs iconic shirts, hats and swimwear and reinvests its profits into social programs in remote NT communities. I know it's doing absolutely great work. There is another example which has come up to us from down south. I want to mention it because I think it is the future, with social enterprises and First Nations people working with each other. With the support of government, they could do so much more. Ngarrimili, founded by Cormach Evans, is an Aboriginal-led non-profit providing support and entrepreneurial opportunities to First Nations businesses and creatives around Australia. They want to create enduring and sustainable economic development. I've met with them, and I'm going to assist them to connect with local people who they can help.

There is a movement here, because First Nations people have seen after eight long years that they can't wait for the government; they have to make things happen themselves. There have been a lot of broken promises from the government, and obviously there is a lot of mistrust. Mistrust of the federal government is undermining confidence in the ability of government to help with these issues. It might suit the current federal government, but a federal Labor government will be active. We will consult, as we have done for so many years, because First Nations people, businesses and organisations know what's needed to get the job done. We have to rebuild that trust, and we will.

I want to see the government show how it intends to work to meet the Closing the Gap employment targets without a genuine remote job creation program. That is the challenge I put to the speakers coming up on the government side to speak on this bill. They have changed the name of the CDP, something that they've known for at least five years was not fit for purpose and was not achieving the outcome. How will the name change really create those economies in local communities?

We know what we're going to do in government—and in the Northern Territory it's really needed. In a place, as I said, where one in three children are living in poverty after eight years of either doing very little or not doing things with First Nations people and communities and not listening to their Statement from the Heart, it is well past time that federal Labor's plan for remote jobs is allowed to happen, and I hope it does.

6:56 pm

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I must say that I am pretty disappointed in the very mean-spirited, negative and overtly political way that the two speakers from the opposition thus far have approached this debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2001. I come to this place as someone who represents a large part of remote Australia, and I work very hard for all of my constituents, including the eight per cent or so who are Indigenous. I believe that the overwhelming majority of members of this place believe in trying to provide a better future, and I think that we should be less critical than the way that those speakers have gone about it.

Most of the information that Australians have—and they are of the view that things should be better too—comes from television programs et cetera, which will have a slant on it that that particular program will want to give. You need to approach all of these information sources with caution. But those of us who have been privileged to go into these communities as part of our work will realise that these issues are many layered and these are difficult problems. But the problems, the challenges and the opportunities of the remote Indigenous population are poorly understood by most Australians, I would have to say.

The underlying belief that Indigenous communities will prosper if only we offer enough resource to maintain them in a traditional lifestyle is, I think, a premise that needs to be questioned by all of us. We supply housing, health services, schools and a pretty good standard in all those things. We could do with more housing—I certainly admit that—but the health services, the schools and the shops that are underwritten by the Commonwealth in most cases are of good quality, and we provide an income so they can buy food and shelter. Some might say that this equals an ideal outcome—that we are providing sustenance for these people to live on their traditional lands and live a 'traditional' lifestyle. But they are living far from a traditional lifestyle. Having provided all these things, we have, in many cases, actually taken the purpose from their life and their culture—their reason for existence. In a traditional lifestyle they were largely preoccupied with feeding and clothing and finding shelter for their families. Of course, that is not the case anymore. In many cases you can see the breakdown of what were their cultures and disciplines within. No longer do the younger generation need to listen to the older generation on how to live their life and how to apply themselves. The things that they used to do are really done for traditional purposes now to try to keep hold of those things that were the foundations of their societies, rather than for need.

One of the problems we have with many of these remote communities—certainly the ones that sit within South Australia, the most prominent of them being the APY Lands—is that they exist in a place where there is a very small natural economy, if you like. The APY Lands were given freehold to the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara tribes in 1981 by the Tonkin Liberal government in South Australia. Historically, after European settlement, these were pastoral properties. At their peak they probably employed maybe 100 stockmen across that area, which is roughly 10 per cent of SA, and many of those would have been Aboriginal stockmen. But things change, and agriculture has changed mightily. If they were to run efficiently now as cattle properties, as they were then, they would probably employ 10 people, maybe 15 at the outside. They have helicopters to muster, electronic mustering systems on waterholes and electric fencing—all the things we can do now that we couldn't do 100 years ago.

But over 3,000 people live on the APY Lands and there are 15 jobs there if things go well. The next question is: what is the next job? Obviously there are jobs providing services in health and education but, largely, this population is very poorly equipped to deliver those. They don't have the education levels to do so and so those jobs go to outsiders—to whitefellas in most cases. So this has become a very difficult issue. I don't see any easy way out of it. My hope is that in the longer term the education system is sound enough that a generation will take the position where, while the APY Lands might be their cultural home and where they return for cultural practices, they will go out and, as Noel Pearson would say, 'live in two worlds'. They would go and compete, get educated, and join the workforce in the outside world, because I don't see where that natural economy lies in those lands.

It would be about 10 years ago, I was the member for Grey, that I was wandering around Ceduna one Saturday afternoon. I called into what I would call the office of Aboriginal affairs but these departments change their minds often enough that I can't be absolutely certain that that's what it was called at the time. There was a woman there; she would have been about 35, I suppose—and, if she's listening, I don't remember your name and I'm sorry if I got your age wrong!—and I asked what she was doing. She said: 'I'm just tidying up a few ends here. I just came in today.' I had a bit of a chat with her, and I asked, 'Where do you come from?' She said, 'I come from Canberra.' I said: 'Oh, really! What are you doing out here?' She said: 'Well, I was working in the department in Canberra. I was writing policy and I thought it might be a good idea if I came out here and had a look at what it was like on the ground. I said: 'That's an excellent notion, good on you. What do you think now?' She looked at me and she said: 'I don't know what I think anymore. Everything I thought is upside down out here. All the things I thought would work in Canberra don't work when you get on the ground out here.' That's one of the issues we're dealing with. She wasn't too sure what she was going to do after her stint in Ceduna, but I do think there would be great value in many more public servants who work in Aboriginal affairs doing exactly the same as she did.

This purposeless existence has largely exacerbated the abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence—let me tell you, that's terrible—crime, imprisonment and breakdown of family. Just as a point of reference for this, I think we all in this place are concerned about the percentage of Indigenous people in custody. The latest figure I have is that 70 per cent of those in custody are there as a penalty for acts of violence, mostly against women. For those who that think these people shouldn't go to jail, I'll ask: Who protects those that they've been abusing? Who incurred the wrath of the courts in the first place that placed them in the jail? I'm not saying any outcome is good and that I've got an easy answer, but I think we need to all understand what the real drivers of these issues are. So it is absolutely a vicious cycle, and that is where the value of a job comes in.

We all know in this place, or most of us know, that if you've got a job—the phrase we've used often is—it's the best form of welfare. But it gives so much more than an income; it gives value in a person's life, it gives a reason to get out of bed in the morning, it gives structure to a person's life. It's fair to say that governments of both persuasions have recognised the value of a job and there have been numerous programs.

I heard the member for Barton waxing lyrical about the CDP program, which Labor put into place. I think looking through rose coloured glasses in hindsight is not necessarily a good thing to do. The CDP program was abandoned because there was no viable pathway to permanent work. The problem was people got on CDP and stayed there permanently. The government attempted to put a sharper focus on climbing out of that and actually getting into a regular workforce.

Now we are to have another attempt at somehow trying to get the formula right, but I don't say of any side of politics that they've tried to get the formula wrong; I think they've tried to get it right and it's not easy. These instances and things that I've referred to already demonstrate how difficult this is. It shouldn't be controversial that we're having a genuine attempt to try and make things better for the lives of those who live in remote communities.

The Member for Bruce is in the chamber, I see. I do have to mention that this morning he brought a motion into the chamber which certainly foreshadowed a future Labor government's intention to get rid of the cashless debit card. I've spoken to some Aboriginal people in the cashless debit card area, and I said to them, 'You know, the Labor Party now seems committed to get rid of the cashless debit card,' and one of the gentlemen virtually spat out, 'What would you expect!' I can tell you that there are a large number of Indigenous people in the community who do not want to lose the cashless debit card. But that is Labor's prerogative, and I believe they would be putting that forward in good faith, and I make that point.

What they did not put forward in good faith was scurrilous. They were trying to establish the lie that it was the coalition government's intent to apply the cashless debit card to aged pensioners. We never have and we never will. To bring that up is a complete echo of the 'Mediscare' campaign that the Labour Party ran in 2016, when, on the eve of the election they were robocalling pensioners and telling them the coalition was going to get rid of Medicare. What a disgraceful act, and that bill this morning was a repeat of that performance It's a complete lie and must be labelled as such.

To move on, what we're now doing, with the establishment of the regional engagement program, is searching for more community involvement and a bigger focus on skills development to provide a pathway off of these welfare systems into work. We're doing it now with an enticement—a bonus, if you like. A word of warning though: I've been talking to some Indigenous communities lately, and they're reporting that they're getting more out-of-towners, people from the remote lands coming into places like Cooper Pedy, Port Augusta and Ceduna and not going home. When I asked the reason for this, it was given to me quite plainly: because you've made the CDP voluntary rather than compulsory, so now these people don't have to go home to actually tick the box to make sure they can get their payment. So they're leaving houses and families behind and going into the bigger urban centres where they can access alcohol, and that is causing great concern for my communities at the moment. That is a result of court action that occurred in Western Australia.

This bill establishes the new supplementary payment—the remote engagement program payment, if you like—to participate in a work type role in a volunteer capacity with a government service or a community organisation. The plan is to build skills and define a pathway to a job. Something I think has been a very successful government program is the government purchase ratios, under which government departments are directed to make sure they are buying roughly three per cent of their inputs from Indigenous controlled, owned or operated organisations. I understand that we are getting pretty close to those numbers. I have seen quite a number of Indigenous corporations and businesses get started on the back of that. That is a really good indication of where we want to go. With this program we are going to train up workers to get into those programs, I hope. It is a good tick. It's one small brick in the building of a large wall.

This program is to be a pilot program, and we are consulting with the communities before, during and after the pilot to make sure we get the right kind of mixture for every community. At the end of the day, a job is the best form of welfare.

7:11 pm

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to talk about something that is so important, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2021. I take issue with what the member for Grey just told us. It was absolutely misleading to say that there were no privatisation plans by this government. In fact, in February 2016, John Cahill was a bureaucrat in charge of a Medicare task force of the then Turnbull government to privatise parts of Medicare. We already have age pensioners on the Indue card, another card that's been created to line the pockets of Liberal mates. It is up to them to be honest and upfront with the Australian people when they come in here. I know that would be a novel exercise for them, but it really needs to be done. We should put on the record that what we heard was in fact untrue, incorrect and, I think, deliberately misleading to people listening to say that the government was never going down the track to privatise parts of Medicare. It's factually wrong. That 9 February 2016 quote came from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. They were their own government's leader's words.

Throughout the eight years of their government, the Liberal-National Party coalition have failed again and again to deliver support for those living in remote communities. The barriers to employment facing those who live in such communities, particularly our First Nations people, are significant. It's disappointing that the government has decided to bring forward a bill that is so woefully inadequate in addressing the issues faced by Australians living in remote communities. The bill puts forward a plan to phase out the existing Community Development Program, providing a trial for the new remote engagement program, which will increase payments received by those who are part of the program. Labor supports that part of the bill, because the supplementary payment which will be received by the trial participants provides a necessary financial benefit to the small number of remote Indigenous jobseekers who will be included in the trial, but we must make it clear that the damage that has been done to remote communities over the eight long years of this tired Liberal-National government will not be undone by this bill.

The government's CDP, instituted in 2015, drew intense criticism from us and from stakeholders who were impacted by it. Despite the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee holding an inquiry in 2016 into the effectiveness and appropriateness of the program, it has taken until 2021 for the government to abolish this program—but it won't be fully phased out until July 2024. That is a nine-year-long offensive, ineffective and inappropriate program that has done nothing to create jobs or support individuals in remote areas and, instead, has served only to harm and disenfranchise vulnerable communities.

Labor hoped that, after such a colossal failure, the Morrison government would aim to institute a program that actually served to benefit Australians in remote areas, that created jobs for First Nations people and that was formed in close consultation with our Indigenous communities. Instead, this bill fails to rectify one of the key flaws of the Community Development Program—the requirement that people undertake work without proper pay and workplace protections. This policy approach reflects the government's stubborn refusal to create social security policy based on what is widely already known—that many people on the current Community Development Program who will be on the new remote engagement program are already trained and will work if real jobs become available.

It has become offensive for the Morrison government to continue to suggest that Australians living in remote communities are either unwilling or too untrained to find adequate work when the reality is that this bill fails to address one thing—that is, jobs are simply not available in communities. The new program should do everything possible to support First Nations people into long-lasting jobs, reducing welfare dependency and strengthening Indigenous business and communities. It must be implemented via Aboriginal community controlled service providers in remote regions and include large-scale Indigenous employers in remote Australia. Their expertise should be central to any new program design. The government's program fails in these areas.

Once again, the government has failed to address the existing challenge of on-country job creation for young people leaving education. The new program will further entrench the status quo of the Community Development Program, paying individuals to participate in dehumanising work-for-the-dole activities. Despite failing to fix the real issues facing remote communities with regard to accessing secure employment and meaningful work, evidence given to the Senate inquiry showed that the remote engagement program also risked undermining the existing on-country jobs, such as Indigenous rangers, because of the potential for cheaper labour under this program.

The Scrutiny of Bills committee has further raised concerns about the proposed legislative framework, in particular the lack of clarity on the eligibility requirements for participants and the compliance regime for payment, noting that setting them out in legislative instruments is giving the minister very, very broad discretionary powers. Even worse, the Morrison government's, some may say, deliberate lack of clarity on the administrative arrangements for delivering the program has made it impossible for the Australian Human Rights Commission to provide clear advice on the discriminatory status of this program. The bill fails to address the key flaws of the Community Development Program and it fails to provide any clear pathway to employment for those living in remote communities.

We call on the Morrison government to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the goals of self-determination and community based governance, and support the economic growth of rural and remote communities. The government has deliberately broken its promise on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and First Nations people have a right to be concerned about the Morrison government's commitment to addressing the issues which face so many remote communities. It has started the promised co-design process by designing the participation payments for the pilots without consultation with First Nations people. The government must act to rebuild trust and meet its commitment under priority No. 1 of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and deliver co-designed employment services for remote regions.

This government's ongoing apathy towards First Nations people in remote communities is a cornerstone of its time in leadership. The failure on these communities stretches far and wide. We have seen the government's failure on remote communities and its inability to ensure adequate access to basic medical services, such as a simple visit to a GP. The government's failures on remote and Indigenous communities throughout the course of the pandemic have been stark as well. Vaccination rates in these communities lag far behind those of many parts of the rest of the country, placing these communities at immense risk as our country begins to open up. The Morrison government's lack of motivation to address the issues facing Indigenous and remote communities is not just a problem, I fear; it's a national disgrace.

The government has proposed a bill which fails to reform key issues of existing legislation in this area and provides no real plan to accurately create jobs and enable self-determination in disadvantaged and oppressed communities. Let me make it clear: this bill is far from perfect. In fact, it's not really adequate. However, in the short term the payments offer individuals a financial benefit totalling at least $5,200 over two years. That will have small flow-on for families and communities. Given the significant poverty in remote Australia, largely because of the lack of economic activity and the impact of the community development program, this bill should not be rejected in this place. Allow passage of this bill, and Labor will do that. It should not be constructed as approval.

Australians living in remote areas deserve far more than what the Morrison government is offering in this bill, particularly Indigenous Australians, who face many barriers with access to employment, education, healthcare services and so many other aspects of life that we take for granted. These disadvantages are reflected in the quality of life and the life expectancy of people living in these communities. Labor has a real plan to address these issues, to create jobs, to improve social services, to provide social security in ways that respect the lived experience of those we seek to help. The Morrison government talks a big game when it comes to closing the gap and supporting Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote communities. But this attempt at social service reform is another more than embarrassing attempt for the government to launder their image.

Real and immediate action is needed in order to support First Nations people. We need the expansion of job programs, like the Indigenous Rangers Program that have been proven to work. We need to abolish programs that have demonstrated harm to communities, not just rename them. Labor has committed to ending the Community Development Program and replacing it with real jobs creation and an economic program for remote Australia, not just the same flawed program with a new marketing label put on by the Morrison government, which is what they are proposing. Working with First Nations people and consulting with relevant stakeholders are crucial to creating social security programs that truly address the issues that those living in remote communities face, and it removes the very real barriers to accessing employment in these areas. First Nations people and those living in remote communities deserve better than this Morrison government. They deserve better than an old, failed program repackaged with a new name, which is what this bill is.

I accept that we have to support it, because any financial gain to those living in remote communities will provide much-needed benefit to those individuals, to their families and to the communities. But we cannot for a moment pretend that this bill is good enough. The trial that this bill proposes will begin with 200 individuals. For those on the other side, that leaves 40,000 Australians currently participating in the Community Development Program to continue to struggle in poverty, forced to work without adequate wages, all for the benefit of actual employment, with no prospect for change under this government until at least 2024.

What Australia needs is a real plan for jobs in remote communities, a plan to support individuals with dignity and respect through the process of finding meaningful work. The Morrison government's new plan is really just their old plan, a plan that failed. We need a new plan. Labor has one. We know that only an Albanese-Labor-led government will deliver it. Anthony Albanese and Labor are on the side of our Indigenous Australians. That is not lip service; it is something we stand for wholly and solely. The chance at the next election to replace this tired old government that is full of marketing slogans, rorts and rip-offs has never been more important for our nation's history.

As I said, Labor are not going to oppose this bill because there is a tiny bit of benefit to a very small number of people. But it does not go far enough, it does not deliver enough and it still does nothing to address the disadvantage that people in remote communities face. It is not good enough. It is a classic example of a government that actually does not care, that is focused more on its next headline than on delivering brings meaningful change. We know that for Australians right across this nation, when you give them decent employment and job opportunities you build up their self-esteem, you build up their dignity and you help them get out of poverty. Just once it would be great if the government thought about other people rather than itself.

7:24 pm

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a great pleasure to rise and provide some commentary today about the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2021. Some may query why a metropolitan member of parliament is rising to speak on a bill that relates to remote engagement. I've had the great opportunity of living and working in some of our regions around Australia, as has my wife. When we were both quite young Army officers and before we had kids, we were posted up in Darwin, and part of my wife's role as the member of the intelligence company up there was to travel throughout the regions right across the Top End and build and maintain those networks for the purposes of information sharing. It was quite a wonderful role and one that she certainly cherished, and I was able to get out into some of those regions myself whilst we were in the Top End. One of the things that became quite obvious during that engagement was that the opportunities to access employment are clearly lacking in the remote areas of Australia, and that's where the bill before us today is absolutely focused.

Employment bills give all of us a sense of dignity and purpose, a way to give back to society and to generate rewards for ourselves and our families. Principally, the benefits here I would categorised as dignity and self-worth. Dignity is obtained because we're drawing a wage that allows us to live in a manner which is, for the large part, free of interference from others. Of course we have a responsibility to pay taxes and for those taxes to be responsibly managed by the government of the day. Self-worth is achieved as we participate in society and we produce a good or a service that is of value to others. Providing that good or service and seeing how that benefits society have an intrinsic reward for the person generating that good or service. The reverse is also absolutely accurate: when we are unemployed or when we are underemployed, it's much harder to maintain dignity and self-respect.

Whilst we may intrinsically believe that this is the case, it's important to note that this is absolutely backed up by research. In 2011 Australian and New Zealand Consensus Statement on the Health Benefits of Work was published by the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The signatories here reached a consensus on the following points: that work is generally good for health and wellbeing; that long-term work absence, work disability and unemployment have a negative impact on health and wellbeing; that work is an effective means of reducing poverty—that seems fairly self-explanatory, since one is earning a wage when one is working; and that work is also effective at reducing social exclusion, including that faced by Indigenous populations and other currently disadvantaged groups. With appropriate support, many of those who have the potential to work but are not currently working because of economic and social inequalities, illness or acquired congenital disability can access the benefits of work. The signatories also agreed that individuals seeking to enter the workforce for the first time, seeking re-employment or attempting to return to work after a period of, say, injury or illness face a complex situation in which there are a great many variables and that good outcomes are more likely when individuals themselves understand that there are health benefits relating to work and are empowered to take responsibility for their own situation. Those are the comments that stemmed from the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. What it all points to is a very clear indication that there are inherent benefits of being in employment.

Over many decades, governments have tried different approaches to delivering employment services in remote Australia. I've been tracking the debate and have heard a number of my colleagues on both sides here acknowledge that these programs are challenging and complex and difficult. Indeed, we've learned that what works in our cities may not work in our regions and remote areas. Australians living in those remote communities face some complex employment challenges, and these are very different to the employment challenges faced in urban areas. Remote areas cover 75 per cent of the Australian landmass, and there are just fewer jobs available in remote areas. In fact, less than two per cent of actively trading businesses are located in these remote areas. Whilst this does not exclusively impact Indigenous Australians, it does disproportionately affect that cohort.

Debate interrupted.