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

Referral to Committee

6:16 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I, and also on behalf of Senator Siewert, move:

That the provisions of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 be referred to the Community Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 10 September 2007, with particular reference to:
(a)   the likely effects of the new income management regime on the health and well-being of children in affected communities;
(b)   the demonstrable need to restrict the appeal rights of those on the new income management regime in affected communities;
(c)   the interaction of the bill with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the extent to which the provisions can be characterised as ‘special measures’; and
(d)   the effects of these measures on community governance and the development of remote communities.
That the provisions of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007 be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 10 September 2007, with particular reference to:
(a)   the relevance of the acquisition of Aboriginal land and changes to the permit system to address the problems of child protection, health and development;
(b)   the possible impacts of the prohibition of alcohol on child safety;
(c)   the interaction of the bills with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the extent to which the provisions can be characterised as ‘special measures’; and
(d)   the effects of these measures on community governance and the development of remote communities.

These motions seek to refer the package of legislation regarding the Northern Territory situation, and some other measures relating to welfare payment quarantining but not to the Northern Territory situation, to Senate committees for proper examination. For the sake of resolving the question this evening, which I think would at least create total certainty for the relevant Senate committee or committees and the public, I recognise that it is desirable to have this debate finalised and voted on by 10 minutes to seven. That is only half an hour away, so I will keep my remarks brief.

To some extent, this issue was canvassed in other debates earlier today, but I believe it is important to make the point, to have the debate and to get the issue on the record here. The motions moved by Senator Siewert and me seek to refer the legislation to two separate committees. We seek to deal some of the legislation across to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs—particularly areas to do with the permit system, land acquisition, alcohol measures, pornography controls, changes to community stores and issues to do with governance. The separate legislation dealing with welfare quarantining, which is an amendment to matters relating to social security payments, we wish to send to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, where such matters are usually dealt with.

The key issue for me and the Democrats is not so much which committee these bills go to or whether they go to two separate committees; the key issue is the need for sufficient time for the Senate to inform itself of the views of the people who are directly affected and those who have immense expertise in these areas—much more expertise than just about any of us in this chamber or on the government benches anyway. The proposal is for the bills to be sent to committees, to report back on the first sitting week in September. While that is still a fairly brief period, it would nonetheless allow a few weeks for senators to hear from a range of people, particularly from the Territory. That would be the week starting 10 September, which is just a month away.

I repeat what I have already said a number of times here today and elsewhere: if there is a single measure in any of these pieces of legislation that the government can point to and justify as being needed now to protect or save children at risk from harm that would not be able to be carried out if this legislation were not debated until next month, then I would appreciate it if they would single that out. We still have not had anybody from the government do that at any stage in this debate in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. That, to me, is a simple matter. It is an important matter. It is an urgent matter. Because it is important and urgent, we need to do it well. You do not rush into any emergency or disastrous or serious situation without first having a proper look at what you are going to do before you charge in. That is what the Senate is at risk of doing. This is an important thing for the sake of getting the legislation right.

I would also say that it is important for the sake of strengthening the confidence and trust of the people of the Northern Territory—particularly Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and more widely—that there be at least some genuine attempt to listen, to do all we can to get it right, to do whatever is possible within the constraints of the situation and to minimise the mistakes and maximise the effectiveness of what we are trying to do here. Frankly, that is the Senate’s job. To suggest that we can do that job properly by doing what is proposed by the government—having a one-day hearing on Friday, about 40 hours from now, with a witness list still to be provided of a group of people who probably still do not know that they are going to be giving evidence—and to expect us to then produce any sort of coherent committee report to bring back to this chamber on Monday to continue the debate is ludicrous.

It is understandable, in one sense, that the government may wish to rush this through and get it all locked in before there is an opportunity for people with expertise to comment on and draw attention to problem areas. A natural response of government in any circumstance, particularly when they know they are making major changes that are likely to contain flaws, is to push it all through before people have a chance to draw attention to those flaws and before pressure builds to fix them. They can always say, ‘We’ll fix it up down the track if we need to.’ That is a common political tactic. As I have said already today, this issue is too important for politics. We have a particular responsibility to do all we can to get this issue right, rather than just playing with political positioning and dealing with the political situation.

The Labor Party would know, because they have experienced it with other major pieces of legislation, how ludicrous it is to have these one-day Friday hearings. I think this was done with the Telstra legislation—a major piece of legislation. It was presented as a matter of: ‘Are you for or against privatisation? If you are, you’ll vote for and if you aren’t, you’ll vote against.’ But there was a whole range of detail in it which went far beyond that proposition. That legislation was slammed into this chamber with a day’s notice. Before people had even had a chance to read it and absorb it, they had to give evidence to a Senate committee which then had to try to absorb all of that, comprehend it and report back to the Senate the following Monday, and we were all pushed to accept it all. As we have seen since, we have ended up with a debacle.

It is not a political statement to say that you will end up with mistakes in legislation if you do that; it is inevitable. Nobody is so omniscient; no group of parliamentary drafters, departmental officials, ministers or anybody is so all-knowing, so clever, so brilliant, so perfect in every respect that, when they follow a process like that, they can think they are going to get it right. They will get it wrong, and the Senate will get it wrong. These motions are about minimising the chances of the Senate getting it wrong.

It must be emphasised that one piece of legislation, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007, which seeks to amend the Social Security Act, deals with Aboriginal people and communities in the Northern Territory. But significant parts of it deal not with the Northern Territory or with Aboriginal people at all but with the entire Australian community. According to the government briefing I have received, it deals with matters that will not come into operation until, at the very earliest, next year, and probably not until the year after that. So they are very significant changes. I am not even expressing a view about whether they would be good or bad. I can see merit in both sides of the argument, frankly. I think they are being pushed through without awareness by the public that they are likely to be affected. They will be put in place and become law. As we all know, it is much harder to change a law once it is in place than to get it right in the first place.

That is a reason why there is no particular urgency in this regard. I do not believe anybody from the government would credibly argue that waiting for a month before quarantining welfare payments for Aboriginal communities in the Territory is going to cause child assaults that otherwise would not have happened. Even if the government wants to make that point, the clear reality is that large parts of the legislation have nothing to do with the Northern Territory at all, with Indigenous communities or—in part at least—with child abuse. Part of the legislation does and part does not. The provisions are not going to come into force for a long period of time.

We, as a Senate and as a parliament, should not be passing major pieces of legislation which comprise dramatic shifts in public policy and in legislative operation—major intervention by a government in the daily lives of all Australians, potentially, in a very detailed, very interventionist way—without, firstly, at least making sure people are aware of the matter and we can get some feedback from them and, secondly, examining it properly ourselves. That is our job. It is not good enough to just refuse to do our job on the basis of putting up this general label and saying, ‘It’s an emergency,’ and running around with a banner over our heads saying, ‘Emergency, emergency!’ so that we do not need to actually do anything properly.

I would argue that, if it is an emergency, that is double the reason to do it properly and double the reason to scrutinise things properly. That does not mean there would be an excessive delay, as has often been alleged by the government. It means doing a bit of listening and a bit of thinking, rather than just a lot of talking. As some government speakers quite loudly proclaimed today, the time for talking is over. In part, I would agree with that, but the time for listening is certainly not over, and the time for thinking is never over. Frankly, there is not enough thinking, and certainly not enough listening, going on at the moment. You cannot make informed decisions in these sorts of circumstances.

I will make a final point. A whole range of people have made comments in reports over many years, leading up to and including the Little Children are sacred report, which was used as the catalyst for the Northern Territory intervention. I am referring to not just reports about what needs to happen but reports and reviews which have examined what has been done. The head of the Productivity Commission, who is not usually slagged off by government people as being a bleeding heart leftie, made quite clear what has worked and what has not worked. In the very valuable benchmarking work that the Productivity Commission has done, the key common factor in what works in trying to improve the situation for Indigenous people is working with people at a community level, building trust, confidence and capacity, and working with respect.

Whatever else you would say about the pros and cons of the government’s policy decisions in this area, they have certainly not done that in the last five or six weeks. They could have done it, and they should have done it; and they should start doing it now. They should do it not just because it is a feelgood thing or because it makes people feel nice to talk about working together but because the evidence shows that it works. The evidence also shows that when you don’t do it, you fail. So if we are about trying to maximise the chances of success then that is what we should do.

This very process that the Senate is engaging in at the moment of bulldozing legislation through, of failing to listen to people, of actually denying people the opportunity to be heard, of refusing to allow any credible consideration of the very significant issues that are contained in these bills, actually helps to reduce trust. That is a consequence, and you cannot dispute that. It may not be the intent but it is the consequence—that you increase suspicion, you increase resentment, you reduce trust and you also reduce empowerment. You do not strengthen the capacity of the community, who are already struggling with disempowerment, to deal with these issues by disempowering them further through these sorts of processes. And that is what is happening.

This very process that the government is trying to insist upon undermines the capacity to be effective. So even by refusing to agree to these motions in order to allow some degree of respect, of engagement, of listening, we are actually making the job harder. Regardless of what ends up being in the laws that are passed, we are making the implementation and therefore the chances of success much more difficult. There is a real opportunity here that the minister has presented through his commitment in this area, and I do acknowledge and praise him for that commitment. But opportunities can be lost, can be wasted and can go very sour. It takes more than just passion, lots of urgings and lots of emotion. We need to ensure that proper consideration occurs as well, and that is what these motions are about.


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