Wednesday, 15 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
I move Democrats amendment (1) on revised sheet 5340:
(1) Clause 6, page 9 (after line 27), at the end of the clause, add:
(3) The Minister must cause an independent and comprehensive annual review of this Act, the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007; and the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Act 2007 to:
(a) gauge their impact on Indigenous communities; and
(b) ensure that the Act's outcomes are consistent with the recommendations of the Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse 2007.
(4) The person or organisation undertaking the review must give the Minister a written report of the review.
(5) The Minister must cause a copy of the report to be tabled in each House of Parliament within 15 sitting days of receiving it.
(6) These annual reviews are to continue until the end of the 5 year sunset clause, with the first review due to report 12 months after this Act is passed.
As Senator Siewert just very kindly outlined, in my view, the Democrats amendment is a more comprehensive mechanism for trying to ensure adequate review. It should be noted that the government members of the Senate committee recognised the need for a review but, for reasons best known to them, did not see any need to recommend that this be incorporated in the legislation. I appreciate that it gives maximum flexibility to the government to do some sort of review at a time and of a type of their choosing, and make it as public or not as they choose. That is the point of why these things are put in legislation, so that we are not leaving it solely up to government to pick timing and a type of review that suits them. We need to ensure that there are clear criteria in advance in the legislation that everybody knows are coming down and that there is some degree of requirement for compliance. As always needs to be said, before the minister or government takes offence and gives hand on heart commitments that reviews will be done et cetera, we have to consider the prospect of not just how the act might be utilised now, but how it might be enacted and utilised down the track. That includes a future government and obviously no commitment the minister gives here today can bind any future government or, I would suggest, even this government once the election is out of the way.
The amendment that I move on behalf of the Democrats requires an independent and comprehensive annual review of this act to gauge its impact on Indigenous communities and ensure that the act’s outcomes are consistent with the recommendations of the report of the Northern Territory board of inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. It also requires the report of the review to be in writing and to be tabled in each house of parliament. That is not particularly out of the ordinary. As we all know, many acts have a requirement that various reviews and reports be provided to the minister and tabled within 15 sitting days of the minister receiving them. It is a fairly standard amendment in lots of ways requiring that an independent and comprehensive annual review be undertaken. It goes a bit further than some cases but, again, it is not totally unprecedented. What is unprecedented, of course—as has been widely acknowledged by all sides—are some of the powers that have been put in place in this act. They are unprecedented and extreme, and people on either side want to put cases forward about whether they are justified. This amendment does not go to that but makes sure we properly and independently review how the act is operating after a year, particularly in regard to its impact on Indigenous communities, which is what this legislation is meant to be about.
I note that when this amendment was designed it also had, as I said, the requirement for the review to assess whether the act’s outcomes are consistent with the recommendations of the report of the Northern Territory board of inquiry, which is better known as the Little children are sacred report. When I put together this amendment, I did not realise that the government’s attitude now, as detailed by the minister last night, was so dismissive of the Little children are sacred report. Perhaps the minister’s response might be that they do not intend this legislation to be consistent with the recommendations of the Little children are sacred report because they think the recommendations, basically, are ‘not worth a great deal’, to paraphrase the minister from last night. If that is a real problem for the government and if they do not want to have any review to refer to the recommendations of the Little children are sacred report, then the Democrats could, reluctantly, agree to have that part of the amendment removed and simply have the review gauge the impact on Indigenous communities, because that is the core issue.
Whilst I do not share the government’s dismissal of the Little children are sacred report, I do not hold it up as tablets brought down from the mountain or any form of holy writ. It is a good report but it does not address every single issue and, quite deliberately, had recommendations that it believed would be promptly implemented by consensus and cooperation. I do not in any way dispute that there is more beyond what is in that report that could be done, and I do not suggest that everybody has to sign up to every single sentence within it. It obviously has been used as the catalyst for the issues and the legislation that we are debating here today, and it is still regularly referred to by the government as justification even though they seem simultaneously prepared to trash it, or at least trash its recommendations, when appropriate.
The core issue, though, is not to have a dispute about the Little children are sacred report; we can do that separately. The core issue and aim of the amendment is to ensure an independent and comprehensive annual review of this act and related acts because, let us not forget, these powers are extreme. They are unprecedented in many respects and we need to gauge their impact on the people that we all say we want to help, which is Indigenous communities, families and children in particular. The Democrats believe there is a need for a requirement in the act that a review occur every 12 months and that it will be independent and comprehensive, will consider the impact on Indigenous communities and will be tabled in this parliament. The government may wish to give commitments that that will happen anyway, and I hope they do give that commitment, but, as I said before, they are not in a position to guarantee that that commitment will be followed through if it is not in legislation. I believe that even the spirit of the recommendations of the majority members of the Senate committee report recognised the need for review. This amendment goes to ensuring that review does occur and that it occurs properly, comprehensively publicly.