Thursday, 28 June 2012
Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011; Second Reading
In speaking to the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the package of legislation known more colloquially as the Stronger Futures legislation, it does concern me somewhat that in looking at the legislation before the chamber, it does not show any particularly new or insightful leadership or any fresh views with regard to the matters considered in the bills. Just putting adjectives like 'stronger' and nouns like 'futures' in front of existing policy does not actually make it stronger—or new, for that matter.
Basically we see this legislation introduced because over a period of time I do not think the government has really had its heart in implementing a number of the initiatives which were part of the emergency response that the coalition found necessary to put forward in the Northern Territory. If I were an optimist—and I like to think of myself in that way—and a generous person, I would say that, hopefully, there has been some realisation that those emergency response measures which were designed to enforce the rule of law, to get children to school and to create economies in remote communities, were real, were targeted and would have worked if pursued with some degree of focus and force and some enthusiasm.
After nearly five years of federal investment in this aspect of governance in the Northern Territory, it is beyond time to progress beyond an emergency situation and we need to really move to a position of stability, a position of normalisation, and, more importantly, one where the Indigenous people of the Territory themselves are able to lead the reforms. But it seems to us that instead, due to an at best apathetic response, we still have school attendance rates which are far, far too low, we have very prominent alcohol-related crime and assaults, we have persistent preventable health problems and we have a lack of economic opportunity that just leads to despair, which have not been addressed.
In some cases—and in a number which I know Senator Scullion spoke about in his remarks on this legislation—we are still where the coalition left off after 2007, and so we still require these sorts of measures to be put forward by the government. We are supporting this legislation because we believe that real reforms are still needed. But we will vigorously hold the government to account if they do not deliver the sort of leadership that is backed up by a very real commitment to pursue the end of the disadvantage and the disconnection being experienced in these remote communities.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the major challenges that confronts remote communities—and this will not be news to you, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, given the work that you have done over many years here in the parliament—is the abuse of alcohol and the multitude of problems that inevitably follow, including assaults, family breakdowns and very poor health outcomes. There are not any new policies in this package of legislation which would enhance or complement any current Northern Territory government policies or initiatives. As far as I can see, this legislation is only duplicating existing measures, so that they can be seen to be taking strong action against alcohol abuse.
I understand that the government has agreed to an opposition amendment to the Stronger Futures legislation which clarifies the power of the federal minister, particularly in relation to the alcohol measures. The amendment makes it clear that prior to modifying, suspending or cancelling a liquor licence or permit the minister is first required to write to the Northern Territory government requesting the Northern Territory Liquor Commission to take action. If after those steps are taken, the Northern Territory authorities decline to act, the Northern Territory government must then provide a written response detailing why that requested action will not be taken. After considering the response from the Northern Territory, the minister may then exercise the powers provided in this legislation to suspend or to cancel liquor licences.
The clause in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 that states alcohol sales must be restricted where harm may be caused to 'Aboriginal people', ignores the fact that it is an entire community that suffers either directly or indirectly from the consequences of alcohol abuse. Whether it is business owners or emergency service workers, they are just some of the other people whose lives and properties are put at risk as a result of the problem, be they Indigenous or otherwise. We have recommended that this clause be amended to specify that the sale of alcohol is causing harm in the 'community'. That removes any specific reference to the Aboriginal people. It also clearly identifies that excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse have community-wide consequences and therefore require a whole-of-community commitment to overcome.
I also note that the coalition supports the township and community living area leasing arrangements in the legislation. This is a reform which is absolutely vital but it has not been pursued by this government. The Northern Territory emergency response monitoring report from October last year says:
Following feedback from the land councils on these proposals, township leasing is now being pursued as a longer-term priority, unless traditional owners initiate discussions.
The government is not showing the urgency that, in our view, this issue demands. The leasing arrangements should be a top priority, because township leases are vital to enabling private home ownership and commercial development in Indigenous communities.
In relation to food security, this measure is an extension of the previous government's community stores program, where stores were assessed and Outback Stores were supported to enter a community to raise the quality and quantity and reduce the price of food and other household items. Expanding the support, monitoring and enforcement of food standards is obviously important, and we are not quibbling on that point. But we do need to know why 10 years have been set aside for improvement in this area. It does seem to be an extraordinarily long time, and we would have thought that it could be—and should be—accomplished within a shorter time frame than that, or at least give us a chance of trying to meet a shorter time frame. A decade is a very, very long time to put on that assessment.
In relation to the issue of school attendance being tied to welfare, which of course is part of the social security bill, the evaluation report for the school enrolment and attendance measure, known as SEAM, shows that SEAM has not really been implemented properly. Again that engenders even greater frustration with the government's actions in this area. It seems to me difficult to conceive that fewer than 10 parents in the Northern Territory were suspended under the attendance component but school attendance at remote schools rarely exceeded 50 per cent. The conclusion that can be drawn from that report is that there is obviously a focus on the exchange of enrolment data between the schools and Centrelink, but where is the focus on greater working with the families to ensure the children are actually going to school? Our concern is that there is an imbalance, if you like.
One of the biggest overall concerns with the bills is that there do not appear to be interim targets set to ensure that the programs are achieving their aims, because all the measures are to be reviewed after seven years, except the alcohol measures, which are of course reviewed after two. We would like to see a more robust set of guidelines to track the progress of the reforms on a more frequent basis so that you could actually raise a red flag if you thought that the sort of progress you were looking for was not being achieved.
It has been a subject of great debate around some of the aims and objectives set within the COAG process that earlier warnings are necessary—in fact essential—to avoid the sorts of delays with the government's Indigenous COAG reforms, amongst others, which we have found in closely examining those. The COAG Reform Council in particular have been significantly delayed and, more importantly, frustrated due to the lack of availability of performance data. Those would seem to be a couple of key points that the coalition would be urging the government to consider.
We agree and have recognised for some time that federal involvement, federal investment, is critical to ending disadvantage and the feeling of disconnect or the actual disconnect in remote communities. I think that waiting for seven years, as specified in the legislation, to review what has worked is not good enough. It is not a strong enough requirement within this legislation and it seems to be almost a laying down of energy, if you like, to actually take this on as a hard task and pursue it as a hard task. We think that the measures should be reviewed after three years.
The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 is the bill that inserts a new income management measure to enable income management referrals from both state and territory authorities. We do share the concerns which were raised by a number of submissions and a number of individuals who have provided evidence to the committee that there should be an established and transparent appeals mechanism which is applicable to all income management referral processes.
It concerns us as well that the government is very focused on process and perhaps less focused on outcomes than would be desirable. This new tranche of legislation has engendered a great deal of debate and a great deal of correspondence—I am sure all colleagues would acknowledge that—but the government does not necessarily seem prepared to strap on the boots for the sort of hard work that is necessary here, including the enforcement of sanctions and suspensions where necessary. If that continues to be the case, then the challenge that has been identified and agreed to overwhelmingly nationally of closing the gap will take so much longer. Those are the concerns that we see in relation to this legislation and which disappoint us in relation to the material put forward to the parliament in that context. I know that this will be a lengthy second reading debate and that there are also a number of amendments for the chamber to consider, but those points that I have raised and which were previously raised in remarks in the chamber by Senator Scullion are key issues that the coalition has endeavoured to address.