Senate debates

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008

In Committee

5:29 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

The Greens oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:

(1)    Schedule 1, item 10, page 9 (line 17) to page 10 (line 2), clause 13 TO BE OPPOSED.

The two amendments I am moving basically relate to removing the exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act. As I have already said, and I will reiterate for people who may not know or may be under false illusions, the Greens have been opposed to the nature of the NT intervention ever since this discriminatory legislation was introduced by the then government last year. I have also said for the record that we do not object to the increase in resources that are available under the NT intervention for spending on the ongoing disadvantage in the Northern Territory. We object strenuously and loudly to the way the NT intervention was applied and continues to be applied and continues to be supported by the current government.

When the current government were in opposition they objected to the exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act quite loudly but supported the legislation nevertheless. Despite their loud protestations at the time, the government continue to support the continuation of exemptions of the various measures in the NT intervention—there are five pieces of legislation that cover the Northern Territory emergency response—from the Racial Discrimination Act.

Let me remind people that the government at the time sought to say that these intervention measures were special measures that were supposed to be of benefit to the Aboriginal community. In case they were not—because there was a pretty strong likelihood that they were not special measures and would not be considered as such under the Racial Discrimination Act—they gave themselves the all-out dropout clause, ‘Let’s exempt everything from the Racial Discrimination Act,’ which then allowed them to change the permit system and to quarantine people’s income despite the fact, contrary to what Senator Scullion said, that there was a voluntary income-quarantining system being run by Tangentyere Council, which had over 2,000 people on the books and 800 people voluntarily quarantining their incomes on a regular basis. And, by the way, Tangentyere Council was underwriting that scheme quite substantially at the time by covering the transfer fee that was being charged. The measures also enabled the government to come in and take control of townships and to prescribe the townships.

The Greens always said that was racially discriminatory, and we still say that it is racial discrimination. That is in fact why the government had to exempt those measures from the Racial Discrimination Act. In the Social justice report 2007, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, included a human rights analysis of the Northern Territory intervention. The report raised very significant human rights concerns with the intervention legislation and the approach taken by the then government. It also made some very strong comments about deeming these acts as special measures and about excluding them from the RDA. On page 295—and I will not quote all of the things that Mr Calma said about the RDA because it would take a significant amount of time—the report says:

It is entirely unacceptable to remove the protection of the RDA for any acts performed under or for the purposes of the NT intervention legislation. This is particularly given the broad discretion that the legislation vests in decision makers at various levels.

The report notes that the exemption from the RDA means:

… that there can be no challenge to any exercise of discretion by officials purporting to act in accordance with the legislation (for example, decisions of government business managers, variations of contract conditions, seizure of assets and so on).

He goes on to say on page 266 that the rationale for the exemption is partly:

… to address the consequences of section 10(3) of the RDA. Section 10(3) of the RDA makes it unlawful to manage the property of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people without their consent …

…            …            …

Such a measure cannot also be classified as a special measure …

The report goes on to say that this provision would affect the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land and the powers of government business managers. Quite clearly this legislation is racially discriminatory. If you need no further evidence, the Social Justice Commissioner, who is now the Race Discrimination Commissioner as well, has found that to be so.

The Little children are sacred report has been misused in a number of way. Specifically, it was used as the justification for the intervention despite the fact that we have known about child abuse and Aboriginal disadvantage in the Northern Territory for years and years, and it was not until last year that it suddenly became an issue that the government felt it had to do something about—and what better report to use than the Little children are sacred report, of which I have the executive summary here with me. Nowhere in this report does it say that you should take measures that contravene the Racial Discrimination Act and then exempt those measures from the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Greens were dismayed and continue to be dismayed that this government continues to foster and progress the discriminatory Northern Territory emergency response because we believed that it would take a much more socially inclusive approach and would act on the comments it made before about the fact that the emergency response contravened the Racial Discrimination Act.

The minister for Indigenous affairs ignored the Northern Territory emergency response review report, which recommended that the minister remove the exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act and make compulsory income quarantining a voluntary scheme and which made many other recommendations, instead announcing the extension of the compulsory income quarantining. I was further dismayed when the minister said, ‘We’re going to do that for at least another 12 months, and maybe in spring next year, when we will have continued this racially discriminatory approach for another 12 months’—and, by the way, we will then have had that discriminatory approach for longer under this government than under the last government—’we’ll remove the exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act.’

That is not good enough. We cannot afford to wait that long with the shame that Australia now suffers from the fact that we have introduced measures that we have had to exempt from the Racial Discrimination Act. We cannot wait until at least spring next year. The Greens are moving these amendments to ensure that the measures that are being put in place in the Northern Territory, which are supposedly designed to end Aboriginal disadvantage and to close the gap—as the government keeps saying is one of its priorities—can be put on a footing that is not racially discriminatory and can genuinely help communities.

Let’s start genuinely implementing the recommendations of the Little children are sacred report, the first of which, as I said, is to commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people. I might add that that was reiterated in the review of the NTER. They also said the government need to re-establish their relationship with Aboriginal communities after the damage that has been done in the last 16 months. They need to repair that and go back and talk with and genuinely consult Aboriginal communities. I commend both this amendment and the amendment I will move in the future to the Senate.

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