Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


Second Reading

4:39 pm

Photo of Ruth WebberRuth Webber (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Here we are debating the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related legislation, which was announced not long before we rose for the winter recess with much fanfare by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Indeed, they almost declared a state of emergency and hinted that parliament would be recalled to consider the legislative reform, as they saw it, as quickly as possible. I can only presume, by the fact that we are considering it now and were not recalled, that it was in the drafting of this legislation that the government perhaps came to realise how complex and how difficult some of these matters are to deal with. These issues are much more difficult to deal with than putting out the press releases declaring them to be an emergency.

It was heartening to discover that the Prime Minister of 11 years had realised that there are children in danger who desperately require our assistance and our intervention in remote and regional communities. Let us not forget that Mr Howard has been the Prime Minister of this nation since 1996, but it has taken until 2007 for him to put this issue on the table and to try to come up with his own framework and his supposed remedy.

In 2002 the then Premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, and Magistrate Sue Gordon attempted to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to this issue. The issue was raised not long after Dr Gallop formed government in Western Australia, when there were concerns about some of the communities in my home state. In order to assess the full range of the issues that needed to be addressed and to consult about the strategies that governments could use to address those issues, the Gallop Labor government established the Gordon inquiry—so these issues are not new to Magistrate Gordon either. They established the Gordon inquiry into domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities in January of that year. When that inquiry reported in 2002, the then Premier sent a copy of the Gordon report to Mr Howard. The then Premier not only wrote and sent that report to Mr Howard but also told state parliament that the human tragedy that the report revealed demanded a national response as well. For five years we got nothing. For five years Mr Howard could not even give the Western Australian government the courtesy of a response or a discussion on the issue, and all of a sudden he has declared a national emergency. He then wonders why some people are a little cynical about his approach to these issues.

Six years ago a former member of this chamber and the other place, Fred Chaney, raised these issues in his work with the Native Title Tribunal and with Reconciliation Australia. Six years ago he put on the national agenda the need to urgently intervene and address the issues of child abuse. That was six years ago. Geoff Gallop put these issues on the agenda five years ago, and now, suddenly, the Prime Minister has discovered the need to take action—and what action it is. In justifying that action some opposite talk about the issues of crime, drug abuse and violence in Indigenous communities and about how the current system is not working. Indeed there are significant issues of crime, drug abuse and violence, but you will find them in any part of our community. Many other parts of the Australian community have significant issues to do with crime, drug abuse and violence. Perhaps we should declare a non-racial national emergency in addressing those issues. That is not sufficient justification.

I have lived in many parts of Australia, but the two parts that have particularly coloured my experience when dealing with issues concerning Indigenous communities is Darwin, which is where I spent my early childhood, and Western Australia, which is where I have lived for many years. Perhaps unlike those who are based in Victoria or New South Wales, I understand some of the issues connected with the remoteness, the isolation and the vulnerability of a lot of the communities that we are discussing. I would hazard a guess that, unlike the Prime Minister, I have actually visited quite a few of those communities and physically know where they are—as I am sure you do too, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot.

If we are to be serious in addressing what is a human tragedy—because the sexual abuse of any child is a human tragedy—we need a commitment to long-term policy and resource changes, not just to change that is based around a personality. We need to ensure that there is a long-term commitment to the recognition, reconciliation and viability of our Indigenous communities, no matter which side of this chamber we happen to sit on. We need a commitment to policies and resourcing that ensures the hard questions, not just the politically expedient ones, are addressed. We need to look at, learn from and listen to all of those communities, not just the most forceful personalities who come up with solutions based around their own particular issues.

Anyone who knows me might be quite surprised to hear that I want to place on the record my concern about the use of the military. This is not because I have any doubt about its commitment. I absolutely respect and value the contribution that it makes, not just its defence role in securing our nation but also its role in dealing with natural disasters. But what I have real concerns about is that it is becoming the approach of this government, or more particularly of this Prime Minister, to send in the Army every time there is a challenge that requires people. This is his solution. The Army has to be one of our most precious resources. It should not be extended above and beyond its capacity to deliver or above and beyond its capacity to look after the safety of its personnel. It is not like a magic pudding. You cannot keep pulling people and resources out of it and hope to have a sustainable military force. We need to make a long-term commitment to sensibly address the issues concerning Aboriginal communities—issues which the government has finally put on the table and claims that it is concerned about.

Last week, while I was watching a current affairs program on television, I saw Minister Brough proclaiming that the government’s intervention in the Northern Territory had been a great success because some of the perpetrators of crimes of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities had been arrested. He wanted to assure us that more arrests were to come. I am sure that there are more to come, but what I will not countenance is any attempt by Minister Brough or anyone else to claim credit for arrests or prosecutions of people who have perpetrated similar crimes in my home state. Where was this government when the Gallop and then the Carpenter governments intervened in Kalumbaru, in Halls Creek and even in the Swan Valley camp? Nowhere to be found. The most significant interventions have taken place in those communities. Those interventions, which have been long lasting and will continue to be so, have not received one scrap of support from anyone opposite. So I will not in any way cop Mr Brough, in this place or on television, trying to imply that his efforts have anything to do with every success everywhere.

When I have spoken about these issues with the Western Australian Police Union and Western Australia Police, they have conceded that it has taken them a long time to get it right. What you need to have to address these issues in communities, particularly in Aboriginal communities, is trust, the right personalities and a long-term commitment—all of which are sadly lacking in those opposite.

To do something more pleasurable than listening to what can be a very distressing and emotional debate on these issues, last week I attended a photo exhibition—the Close the Gap campaign—that Oxfam has been running to help provide solutions to the Indigenous health crisis facing Australia. It was very nice to see some of the lovely pictures of the health services in Port Hedland and even those offered in East Perth. It was nice to see that there are some good, positive things happening. You could be forgiven for thinking, particularly after a state of emergency has been declared, that nothing is happening out there, that no good is coming of anything. But people are out there working hard. We are making progress. We need to value those people and not just wash over them in our rush to be seen to be doing something.

The crisis in Indigenous communities is a very difficult issue for many of us to deal with. I am sure that all of us have been inundated—as I have—with responses from the community, particularly by way of email, letting us know in no uncertain terms what they think of the legislation that parliament is currently dealing with. I have received far too many emails to be able to respond to all of them, so I want to place on the record now that I appreciate the endeavours that people have taken to contact me on this issue.

Although this legislation is controversial and difficult, to my mind it has actually been quite heartening to know that there are that many people in the wider Australian community who care enough to have a view about this debate—because, in some parts, particularly in my home state, there are not enough people who care, frankly. So that has been particularly heartening.

I particularly want to place on the record my thanks to Bob Howard from Albany, who went to the trouble of ringing my office to let me know of his views and his distress at this package of legislation. I want to let him know that I have heard loud and clear what he has had to say. I also appreciated a letter that I received from Fred Chaney. It was actually in response to something that happened earlier this year, but he was writing to me at the time that the government introduced its 500 pages of legislation. So his comments were particularly thoughtful, about the difficulties that we all face in dealing with very complex and emotional issues like this in an election year.

If we are to address this issue it needs to be a long-term commitment, a non-partisan or bipartisan commitment. And to my mind it needs to take its leadership from the women of those communities that we are talking about, because, as we find with almost everything in our lives, when there is something difficult and long-term to be done, it is the women who tend to find the way through and the solution. So I think we need to look to the women in those communities. They will point the way in the long term.

I find this legislation difficult, but I will not allow my personal difficulties to stand in the way of making children safe. Therefore, I am compelled to support it. However, as I said, I do find it difficult. With that, I seek leave, with Senator Nash’s agreement, to incorporate the remarks of Senator Ludwig in this debate.

Leave granted.


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