Senate debates

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

6:34 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I have waited many, many weeks and many, many months to provide my contribution to this debate on what we would probably call the Stronger Futures packages. We are talking tonight about three bills: the main bill itself, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012; the consequential provisions bill; and changes to elements of the social security legislation.

Five years ago, when the Northern Territory Emergency Response occurred, or the 'intervention', as we now all commonly call it, I was shocked. I was literally shocked. I just could not find words that night or the next day, as people across the Northern Territory were ringing me. My colleagues in the Northern Territory were ringing me, absolutely bewildered at why the Howard government would move into Aboriginal communities with the speed and the stealth and the lack of consultation with which they did. The intervention was introduced in less than 48 hours with not a word to anybody, with total disregard for the work of Clare Martin, who was then the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and a total disregard for any of the reforms that the Northern Territory government had put into place.

I am hoping that, with the passage of this legislation, we can just get a few facts on the record tonight—and so far, from the two speakers I have heard, we are very far from the facts. For example, Senator Payne, the school attendance and enrolment management program has only been on trial in the Northern Territory in fewer than eight schools, so you cannot talk about improvement of attendance across the Northern Territory. It has not even been in all of the schools across the Northern Territory. So let's start talking about a few facts here. I say that bearing in mind also the number of emails I have received from particular groups that seek to lobby about this, sitting in the heart of Melbourne and Sydney rather than the heart of Borroloola, Ngukurr or Lajamanu.

But I am hoping that with the passage of this legislation we can ensure that the intervention is placed in another sorry, sad chapter of the history of the communities in the Northern Territory. Key legislative NTER measures will cease by 12 August. This is not a continuation of the intervention. If this legislation goes through, it will stop the Howard government's intervention. As I said, along with many others I was totally shocked about the motives, about the disregard for Indigenous people, about the lack of respect—disbelief and an absolute sense of betrayal. I have travelled the length and the breadth of the Northern Territory many, many times over the last five years. I have probably not gone to as many communities as I wanted to and I have probably not gone back to them as often as I wanted to, and I would have to say the same, probably, for Senator Scullion. Of all the people in this place, we know only too well the hurt and pain that Indigenous people have endured in the Northern Territory because of those policies.

Within a year of coming to government we announced that we would do a review, which we did. It reported in October 2008, and this government handed down its response in 2009. We accepted the need initially to reset our relationship with Indigenous people. That is the first thing we wanted to do as a government. We recognised that high levels of disadvantage still had to be urgently addressed—and they still do. There are improvements out there in communities, but circumstances are nowhere near what we would find acceptable in this day and age. One of the first things we did was reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, and we introduced a scheme of income management that was not racially discriminatory. In the Northern Territory now it is applied to everybody. I do not particularly like the model. I have made my views known very loudly and clearly to the government to which I belong. I believe it needs to be a model that you opt into—totally, voluntarily—or it needs to be a model whereby families that do need assistance are targeted. I think today's amendments, which unfortunately the Greens want to remove, are the way to go. They are the kinds of amendments I think we need, rather than the obligatory, mandatory income management regime.

But, I have to say, as I get around the Territory I meet lots of people who actually like it. I never hear their voices being echoed by lobby groups. I never hear their voices being articulated in this chamber. But they actually like it. A couple of women out in one of the communities said to me when I was there about five weeks ago that they like the fact they can go into the local store and know they have a certain amount of money to spend on their food and goods. They like the fact that it is budgeted for them. They actually like that! People say to me, 'I like the fact that the fellas in my life, the young boys in my life, my grandsons, can't humbug me for all my cash,' and there are many thousands in the Northern Territory who have that view. So we have to accept that there are some elements of this package that the people I represent want continued.

We also redesigned the alcohol and pornography restrictions, the law enforcement powers and the community stores licensing. But, if you have a look at or have a very good read of the Stronger Futures legislation, it really goes to only four measures. One is to sort out what is happening on community living areas. We have needed to do that for long time. Do you know why that is in there? The Indigenous people are frustrated with the intransigence of the Northern Territory government, so they came to us and asked, 'Can you work with the Northern Land Council and the Central Land Council and get a move on this?' For those people who might be listening, community living areas, or CLAs, are those communities that are excised on pastoral properties. At the moment, no-one can own anything on them. There are usually no stores on them. No-one can get a lease to do anything on them, because of the nature of the lease on that land. It is a CLA, a community living area. They want that sorted. That is in this legislation. Why would those opposite object to that?

I want to go through the other issues one by one. Regarding alcohol management, the plans we want to introduce through this will take us to regional centres and remote communities. Communities will be able to have their own alcohol management plans. Groote Eylandt, where they have had their own alcohol management plan, has been particularly successful. From 2004-05 to 2008 their antisocial behaviour declined by 74 per cent. Property crime dropped by 68 per cent. Aggravated assaults dropped by 68 per cent. In Nhulunbuy, where there are some alcohol management plans, the number of people in protective custody has halved since 2009.

We know that there is more work to be done, and we are working with the Northern Territory government, who of course have announced their 'enough is enough' laws. But what we see is that people want their own alcohol management plans. Barbara Shaw is out there advocating that we do not pass this legislation. In her particular town camp they are negotiating their own alcohol management plan. When I asked her in Alice Springs, 'Do you think that having an alcohol management plan camp by camp or community by community is a good way to go?' she said, 'Yes. It's no good my camp having an alcohol management plan and then using it in my grandfather's community. It should be his people in his community making up their own rules.' That is what this legislation allows to happen. That is exactly what this legislation allows to occur, so that, community by community, people can sit down and empower themselves and go back to having their own alcohol management plans. That is something the original intervention took away.

Alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory is the highest in the world; it is 14.6 litres per person per year. Even the national level is only 10.3 litres. We need to do something about it, and we are working with Aboriginal communities to do something about it. There will now be penalties for grog running. That is, if you are supplying 1,350 millilitres of pure alcohol—and we are going to make amendments to ensure that that is really clear to people—you are going to be penalised now. You cannot stock up the boot of your car and run it into communities and get away with it anymore. This legislation will empower police in communities to deal with it.

The other thing I want to say is: what is not in this act is those horrible, shocking, blue community signs, which I think were probably Mal Brough's idea to put up all around the place. Those signs can now be taken down and replaced with signs that are more respectful and that have had direct community input into them. So, yes, it will be illegal to take alcohol into communities, because they are dry, and it will be against the law to have certain pornography in those communities—just as it is illegal for me to take my cattle dog into a national park, and there is a sign there saying stop, you cannot do it. It is the same with these communities. So those horrible, godforsaken silver and blue signs can come down finally with the passage of this legislation, and Aboriginal communities will be able to replace them with their own signs that they have designed and that they have negotiated for, ensuring that they comply with the legislation. I think that is a great thing and I am going to be out there every day advocating that they do that.

This legislation will license community stores—92 have been licensed—and with that comes improvement in quality, quantity and the range of fresh food. With licensing comes improvement in the management and operation of stores. They are cleaner, they are more hygienic and, guess what, they now employ Indigenous staff. As well, licensed outback stores do not have book-up any more. It has meant an end to book-up—an end to a cycle of debt. Book-up is where you go into a store and say, 'I really can't afford that $100 worth of food but give it to me anyway, and when I get my Centrelink money next week I will pay you back.' But you can never pay it back because the next week you need the next $100 worth. That cycle of debt is now ended because outback stores will be licensed and the BasicsCard has been introduced.

This is about food security in remote communities. The stores have been managed and handled in a shonky way by people who have no regard for the kind of food they sell or the people they sell it to. The only regard they have is for how fat their wallet is going to be at the end of the week. This will stop with the licensing of outback stores. That is what is in this legislation. How could anyone say that that is not a good thing? Indigenous people everywhere say to me, 'Sister, I want my store looking just like your Woolies supermarket; I want my store to have proper fruit—I don't want to pay $10 for three oranges anymore.' That is what outback stores have been doing, store by store. If it is not outback stores, it is ALPA—and I gave a speech just last week on how fantastic ALPA is in the Top End. There will be penalties if the store licence is breached. Stores will be designated food security areas. This is about ensuring that there will be competition out there. Competition always drives a better outcome.

I turn to land reform. Five-year leases will not be extended. Fair rent will continue to be paid for the period those leases are in force. The issue of leasing was polarised by the former minister, Mal Brough—there is no doubt about that. There was no attempt to get people to work with the previous government on this. Leasing became a threat—sign up to these 99-year leases on Galiwinku or you will not get any houses. We do not operate like that, and we have never operated like that. We have empowered Indigenous people. We have sat with Indigenous people, through the department and through Jenny Macklin, day after day and got them to understand that at the end of the day if you lease your land, on which we can then build a building, you will get rent for the land that you lease—you will get payment for the land you have leased.

Let me put this on the record: under the current leases, nine major communities in the Top End will receive payments equal to the royalties of a small mine—about $1 million to $2.5 million—once an agreement with the Valuer-General has been reached. For the first time ever communities will be paid for the land that they lease to governments or to people who want a house on that land. They will get money out of that. I will be dammed if I know why anyone would not want to support legislation that ensures that.

So they are three areas: alcohol, store management and land issues. The fourth area is school enrolment and improvement in attendance. I am probably the only person in the federal parliament who has taught on an Aboriginal community. I am probably the only person who has gone to school on Monday with 25 kids in my class, and three on Tuesday, six on Wednesday, 25 again on Thursday and maybe two on Friday. Then the following Monday I get another 25—but they might be a different 25 from the 25 I had the week before. I have been there and I have experienced how damned difficult it is trying to teach kids when you cannot even get the same child consistently day after day.

Whose fault is this? It is everyone's fault. Finally we now have the Northern Territory government stepping up to the plate with their Every Child, Every Day strategy. That is about ensuring that the Department of Education and Training starts to bring people into the schools, starts to work with Indigenous parents, starts to develop attendance plans with them and starts to get to the grassroots reasons those kids are not attending every single day. This is an intervention as much on the Northern Territory government as it is on trying to get kids to school every day. We know the statistics for child attendance, and I am not going to go over them again here. What I do want to say is that I do not know of any answer other than to have a piece of legislation that is going to draw all the parties together. It will make the department of education in the Northern Territory and the teachers in the school communities come to the table. It will make the parents come to the table. Let's get to the bottom of why those kids are not coming to school. Thirty-three school community agreements have already been completed and it is anticipated that a further 22 will be completed by the end of this year.

I think I saw in the last statistics from the Northern Territory department of education that, with the 480 children they have been working with in the trial schools, there have been 39 breaches to date. At the end of the day we do not want any breaches at all. We want to see the education system strengthened so that there is a plan in place to get children to school every single day of every single year. I would hope, at the end of the day, that we have a commitment from the Northern Territory government and from our Centrelink social workers to work with families. That is where we want to be at. We want to work out whether a child is not going to school every day because they do not have shoes, because they are hungry or because they have not been able to sleep at night. You know what? Those are some of the really basic excuses you get for a kid not turning up to school in the Northern Territory.

Schools in the Northern Territory are fabulous places. A lot of my friends and colleagues work in them and they are places of fun and joy. I think it is time. People are screaming out at me. They say: 'Trish, you have to do something about getting my grandson to school. I want my kids to have an education. I want my community to be well educated. I just can't get my grandson to school. You have to help us do something.' That is what this legislation does.

There is one part of this legislation I strongly disagree with and I am toying with the idea of asking the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee to inquire into the provisions relating to customary law. I think we are making a very big mistake in not accepting the fact that the customary law provisions need to be removed from this piece of legislation. Schedule 4 of the bill amends the Crimes Act and proposes to insert new section 16AA. The effect of this provision would be to prohibit a court, in bail or sentencing matters, from taking into account customary law or cultural practices which may lessen or aggravate the seriousness of criminal behaviour. I refer to the comments about this provision made by Chief Justice Riley on 30 May 2011, when he gave an address to the centenary ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. He argued:

The effect of that provision, whether intended or unintended, has been held to be that customary law and cultural practice must not be taken into account—

and went on to say that, because of this:

Aboriginal offenders do not enjoy the same rights as offenders from other sections of the community. It seems to me this is a backward step.

Whether, as he says, the effect of the provision is intended or unintended, clearly customary law and cultural practice should be taken into account. I think this is a flaw in this legislation and I think it needs to be addressed. (Time expired)


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