Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007; Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007; Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007; Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008

Second Reading

10:45 am

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I move in respect of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill and the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007:

At the end of the motion, add

“but the Senate notes that:
(i)   police keeping every community in the Territory safe, particularly children, women and elders,
(ii)   safe houses that provide a safe place for women and children escaping family violence or abuse, built using the direction and leadership of local Indigenous women,
(iii)   night patrols that provide important protection,
(iv)   community law and justice groups that play an important role in the effective administration of justice,
(v)   appropriate background checks for all people providing services in communities who work in proximity to children,
(vi)   comprehensive coverage of child and maternal health services, essential to give children the best start,
(vii)   comprehensive coverage of parenting and early development services for Indigenous parents and their babies,
(viii)   an effective child protection system in the Northern Territory,
(ix)   all children being enrolled and attending school and governments delivering teachers, classrooms, teacher housing and support services, such as Indigenous teacher assistants,
(x)   investment in housing construction and maintenance to reduce the shortfall in Indigenous homes and infrastructure, and
(xi)   reform of the Community Development and Employment Program, including transitioning participants who are employed in public sector work into proper public sector jobs and ensuring participants are not left without sufficient income or participation opportunities”.

I rise to speak on behalf of the Labor opposition on this Northern Territory national emergency response package of bills. This amendment mirrors the second reading amendment moved in the House of Representatives by the shadow spokesperson, Jenny Macklin. All children are entitled to be safe from violence and abuse in their homes and communities. All children are entitled to an innocent childhood. That is a responsibility of not only their parents but also the whole community.

The Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs announced details six weeks ago of the federal response to child abuse in the Northern Territory. From the start, Labor offered our in-principle bipartisan support and we were genuine in doing so. The current action initiated by the government was prompted by the release of a report entitled Little children are sacred, by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, on the protection of Northern Territory Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. The report demands action and is the basis of Labor’s in-principle support of the government initiatives.

Of course, this was not the first report to detail abuse faced by Indigenous children. It again highlights the need to ensure that Aboriginal children can be safe in their homes and communities. The fact that action should have been taken earlier in no way diminishes the need to act now. Nor is it diminished by the recognition that child abuse occurs in all communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. As a former shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, I consistently argued that governments of all political persuasions should have done much better by Indigenous Australians. We have all failed them. We must focus on practical outcomes for Indigenous people and abandon the ideologically driven policy debate that has dominated Australian politics. We cannot tolerate a situation where Aboriginal children are the subject of violence and abuse and where Aboriginal people experience levels of entrenched disadvantage almost unknown in non-Indigenous Australia. We all have to do better.

In framing this intervention, Labor was told by the government that they would put forward practical measures, both a short-term response and long-term solutions. Our in-principle support was given in good faith, despite our cynicism about the government’s previous record. The manner in which this intervention was brought forth and some elements of the response package contribute to that concern, but Labor’s response over the past six weeks has been to apply a simple test to the proposal put forward by the government: will it improve the safety and security of our children in a practical way? Labor was presented with this legislation, in excess of 500 pages, on Monday. It is not possible for us to respond to every aspect of it or to be sure of all the detail. However, Labor has applied the test that I outlined: will it improve the safety and security of children in a practical way? We have come to the conclusion that it will, and we will support it. That is not to say that we agree with every aspect of the bills. I have moved a second reading amendment which outlines the principles Labor believes should guide the intervention. I will also be moving a limited number of amendments to the legislation during the committee stage.

The process the minister has followed has, I think, treated the parliament and parliamentarians shabbily, but that is nothing compared to the disdain and disrespect that has been shown to Indigenous people. I am pleased that the government has agreed to a one-day inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. It will not provide the level of scrutiny that such measures should enjoy, but it is better than no inquiry at all and, as I said in an earlier debate, Labor has accepted the urgency that drives such a timetable.

Input from Aboriginal people, and their ownership of measures in the communities, is essential to achieving long-term change in Aboriginal Australia. That is one thing we have learned from the various policy experiments in Australia’s history in dealing with Indigenous people. Labor believes an open dialogue with Indigenous people is critical. The first recommendation of the Anderson-Wild report noted:

It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.

Nothing is more likely to undermine the worthy intentions of these measures than a failure to gain Indigenous support and confidence in the way forward. Clearly, yesterday was an indication that we have problems in that regard. Labor believes that we have to move forward with trust in a reciprocal partnership with Indigenous Australia.

Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, in company with a number of our members, met with Indigenous leaders from Central and Northern Australia and listened to their views. However, we accept that, while consultation is vital, it must not serve as a substitute for action. We are absolutely committed to tackling, in partnership with Indigenous people, the disadvantage which faces so many of them. Indigenous children deserve the same life chances and the same opportunities for success as every other Australian child. All Australian parents must work towards providing the opportunities for Indigenous Australians that they want for their own children.

On the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, a month or so prior to this intervention, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, outlined Labor’s commitment to Indigenous children. He outlined the need for new, national, bipartisan goals which are achievable, measurable and which fulfil the spirit of the referendum. He committed Labor to eliminating the 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation, to at least halve the rate of Indigenous infant mortality among babies within a decade, to at least halve the mortality rate of Indigenous children aged five and under within a decade, and to at least halve the difference in the rate of Indigenous students at years 3, 5 and 7 who fail to meet reading, writing and numeracy benchmarks within 10 years. These are realistic, practical and achievable objectives to which we can all commit. They were underpinned by a $260 million funding commitment, and we think we can get there.

A commitment to the rights of Indigenous Australians must ensure that those rights can be enjoyed in safety and security. There is an obligation on all governments to ensure the protection of the vulnerable. It is hard to imagine a more fundamental responsibility than the protection of children from violence and abuse. The Anderson-Wild report was right to recommend that addressing child abuse in Aboriginal communities be designated an issue of urgent national significance.

Between 2001-02 and 2005-06, there was a 78 per cent increase in the number of notifications of abuse or neglect received by the Northern Territory Department of Family and Children’s Services, with an average growth in notifications of 14 per cent per year. Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are 4.8 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be the subject of a substantiation report. But the substantiation rate for Indigenous children in the Northern Territory is the third lowest for the nation, despite a doubling of the rate to 15.2 substantiations per 1,000 children since 1999-2000.

The Anderson-Wild inquiry said that ‘sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is common, widespread and grossly under-reported’. Non-reporting of abuse is common across Australia, and the factors behind this are complex. But for reporting to take place, it is absolutely critical that there is someone to report to—and that is why we need visible and accessible policing. Child sexual abuse is a crime, and perpetrators must be punished with the full force of the law.

Labor supports the provision of additional police for the Northern Territory intervention and thanks the states who have seconded officers. However, we also need a long-term strategy to ensure that there are trained police in communities on a permanent basis, and Labor has committed to training an extra 500 AFP officers as a practical measure towards achieving that goal. The approach must also include an Indigenous recruitment strategy. Labor also supports the controls on the supply and possession of pornography in prescribed areas and measures intended to clean up publicly funded computers and employ filters to help to counter the flow of pornographic material.

Labor is strongly supportive of the measures to control the flow of alcohol into and around Aboriginal communities. Numerous reports have outlined the destructive influence of alcohol and the fact that it is a major contributing factor to family violence. Many Aboriginal communities have taken action to combat the pernicious effects of alcohol and have declared themselves dry communities, but we have to recognise that they have not received enough support from authorities for their initiatives. The measures in the legislation are necessary, particularly the targeting of grog runners, with higher penalties for offences that include intent to sell.

The link between adequate housing and child safety has also been comprehensively made. Overcrowded housing is directly linked to children’s exposure to sexualised behaviour, family violence and vulnerability to abuse. Last year, in my capacity at the time as shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, I visited the community of Wadeye, following reports of the breakdown of law and order in that town. Like any visitor, I was immediately struck and appalled by the housing conditions experienced by the people of that community. But I was particularly struck by what I was told by the doctor there, who told me that recently a child had died of rheumatic fever—a disease that has been all but eliminated in the Western world. It is a disease that I suffered from myself as a child.

When I asked him what would actually help to address the serious health concerns involving Indigenous children, I was shocked by his answer. He said, ‘Improve the housing.’ Usually, people who are working in a particular field argue for support for their own efforts. He did not ask for more doctors; he did not ask for more money for the health system; he actually asked for more housing. Not only is it at the core of sexual abuse and poverty; it is also at the core of the health problems. At the core of all the problems is the fact that if you have got 18 people living in a house, the poverty and the conditions that generates is causal to a whole range of the outcomes that we are concerned about. And that, of course, is replicated in many Indigenous communities.

The housing shortfall in the Northern Territory is well documented. Any additional resources that the Commonwealth will provide for remote housing through its changes to the Australian Remote Indigenous Accommodation Program are welcome, but we are concerned that the bulk of the additional money does not come on stream until next July. I think there is concern that the package seems to be focused on funding administrative measures rather than on the priorities.

The government’s intervention plan to reform housing arrangements by establishing market based rents for public housing with normalised tenancy requirements is welcome, provided they are accompanied by improved housing stock. Improvement of housing and infrastructure has been central to the government’s argument for the necessity for five-year leases over townships in Aboriginal communities. It has argued that taking on the responsibility as the effective town landlord is necessary to quickly improve vital infrastructure in these communities and for better housing and improved economic development.

For many years, governments on both sides of politics have failed in this regard. As a result, temporary intervention is required to repair and improve infrastructure, and the temporary leases will facilitate the building and upgrading. However, Labor remains absolutely committed to land rights for Indigenous Australians. Our commitment has been rock solid for many years, and that commitment remains unchanged. We will not accept the undermining of Indigenous ownership of or title to land.

Proposed leases are limited to five years, unless terminated sooner. Rent is guaranteed by the legislation, and just terms compensation can be independently determined by a court. At the end of a lease, title will revert to communal title and to the control of the lands trust. Importantly, any major works or commercial development that will outlive the five-year lease will have to have the consent of the relevant land council. The Commonwealth has given a commitment to invest in housing and infrastructure, although we have not yet seen a lot of the detail. The Commonwealth will retain an interest in the buildings beyond the five-year lease only where the construction or major upgrade is undertaken with the consent of the land council. I am pleased to see that a lot of these measures are much more balanced than some of the original announcements.

The land council, of course, may only consent where they are satisfied that the traditional owners as a group consent and the affected Aboriginal communities or groups have been consulted. Further, grants of other leases beyond the five years, such as under existing provisions in section 19, must follow normal consultation and consent procedures. Labor will ensure that the rights of Aboriginal people to use the land in accordance with traditional purposes, as guaranteed by section 71 of the Aboriginal land rights act, are not affected by these five-year leases. This new lease process is, of course, untested. As such, it requires careful and sensitive handling by the Commonwealth, without which it could cause concern and confusion. However, we believe that a cooperative approach could deliver significant results.

Under the legislation, the federal minister will gain new powers with regard to town camps. The powers afforded to the minister place him in a position as if he were the Northern Territory minister. I reiterate the request made by the shadow minister that the minister, Mr Brough, detail to the parliament the guidelines he will follow in dealing with town camp leases. The minister should only act where leases have been determined to have been breached after due process in accordance with natural justice, and he should ensure that the assets are reserved for affordable homes for disadvantaged Aboriginal people.

A priority for Labor is to work with community members to improve community infrastructure. For that reason we are seeking an amendment to require a review after 12 months to assess progress in establishing infrastructure and housing in both towns and town camps. As I have indicated from the outset, Labor’s test for dealing with this legislation is whether it improves the security and safety of children in a practical way. In the current form, we do not believe that all of the proposed changes to the permit system satisfy that test. The President of the Northern Territory Police Association has indicated that the permit system provides police and communities with a way of excluding from communities drug and grog runners and people who may perpetrate violence and abuse.

Labor will move to oppose the removal of the permit system on roads and common areas in towns. We believe this removal will reduce the safety of children in these communities by allowing greater access to potentially undesirable people. That said, we recognise the need to allow greater access to certain people, and we will be moving substantive amendments in that regard, including an exemption for journalists. However, we do want to see people who are coming on to land under these exemptions having passed a Northern Territory Working with Children check.

Another significant element of the legislation before us deals with welfare reform to enable income management of welfare payments in certain circumstances. We generally support those measures. I will not go into the detail because we will do that in the committee stage, but we had already announced that we would apply income management for parents referred by state or territory child protection services, and it is pleasing to see that the government has picked up that approach. We have some concerns about how the school attendance regime will function, and we will explore those in the committee stages.

Labor’s preference for welfare reform is to ensure that we encourage responsibility and reward positive behaviour. It is an argument which has been made by Noel Pearson, and one which I accept. The Cape York Institute’s policy paper released in June outlined the sort of positive approach that Labor believes should apply to the income management regime. These types of policy measures should serve to encourage individual responsibility. The move from passive welfare will only be accomplished when individuals take responsibility for their future and for their children’s future. I am concerned that there is not enough in this package to take us in that direction.

Finally, we believe that the Racial Discrimination Act is a very important piece of legislation which protects against racial discrimination by legislative, administrative or other means. Labor believes that these laws are special measures under the act. We believe the laws are designed to protect especially vulnerable Aboriginal children, to help rid Aboriginal communities of the scourge of alcohol abuse and to provide much needed infrastructure and housing improvements to remote Aboriginal communities. But the importance of this intervention also requires that the community has confidence in parliament’s belief that these are in fact special measures to the benefit of Aboriginal people. We therefore believe it is unhelpful and unnecessary that there is a blanket exemption from part II of the Racial Discrimination Act, and Labor will move amendments to remove this exemption from the bills.

It is also most important in this debate to recognise that most Indigenous people care for their children in a supportive and loving way. Only a small percentage of Indigenous men are child abusers, but all feel hurt and besmirched by the current furore. In taking strong and decisive action to tackle child abuse in communities, we must acknowledge that the conditions of drug and alcohol abuse and the breakdown of order are the consequences of poverty and hopelessness. They are not the consequences of Aboriginal culture. We must encourage and support Indigenous leaders who have for years been calling for support and resources to tackle these problems in their communities.

In closing, as I have indicated, the key test for Labor is: will this legislation improve the safety and security of our children in a practical way? Labor believes, on balance, that it will. We do not believe that the measures are perfect, but we do think they will make a start on tackling one of the great shames of Australian society. We believe that overriding all other considerations is the recognition that we all have a responsibility to ensure Indigenous children are protected from violence and abuse and that every Indigenous child gets a decent chance in life.


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