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

6:55 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the two related bills together comprise the so-called Stronger Futures legislation—rather disingenuously named in my view. The Australian Greens oppose this legislation. The legislation proposes to extend both the time frame and the geographic scope of an ineffective and damaging policy, which is the NT intervention under another name. This is despite widespread opposition to the intervention and a serious lack of evidence that it has been at all effective in improving outcomes for affected communities.

I want to put on record, in line with the comments of my colleagues in the Australian Greens, why continuing the intervention is not the right path for Australia. In short, it is a top-down, heavy-handed, disempowering policy. It was made clear during the Senate inquiry into these bills that the NT emergency response has caused an erosion of community governance and a disempowerment of Aboriginal people. This disempowerment has been caused by a number of factors, including the way the federal, state and territory governments engaged with Aboriginal communities throughout the intervention and the general top-down, punitive nature of the intervention measures and their interaction with other simultaneous reforms. There was reduced control at the community level and increased centralisation of decision making due to the parallel reforms to the Community Development Employment Program, remote service delivery, housing and homelands and to the abolition of community councils in the local government reforms.

This heavy-handed approach flies in the face of research from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, which the Senate inquiry into these bills heard extensive evidence about. Their research demonstrates that when indigenous communities:

… make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care, and social service provision.

I will talk a little bit now about how income management potentially breaches human rights obligations. The Law Council of Australia has described income management, which of course is a core part of these bills, as 'unacceptable' and in direct contravention of Australia's international human rights obligations. While the Stronger Futures package, unlike the 2007 intervention, will no longer involve the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act—and for that small mercy, at least, we are grateful—there are very serious concerns that these laws will have a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This is because, although the law will apply to everyone, the people who will be impacted by the law are, disproportionately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Clearly, therefore, it is indirect discrimination.

In our view the package also gives state and territory authorities far too much discretion to impose income management on any person in Australia. The Australian Human Rights Commission advised the Senate inquiry that it is concerned by the breadth of the minister's discretion, which allows income management to be introduced across the country without consultation with affected communities. Indeed, there is no evidence that the communities in the five targeted areas were consulted prior to the budget announcement or the introduction of the social security bill. Not only is income management being extended to five communities but the minister will be able to grant other state and territory authorities the ability to put any other Australian outside of those specific intervention areas on income management, which is, quite frankly, outrageous.

The original intervention was not based on evidence and the same is true for this continuation. It just has not delivered. One would think and hope that a continuation and expansion of a policy of this magnitude would be supported by a solid evidence base. But research suggests this is not the case. Two years after the introduction of compulsory income management, evidence suggested that in fact there had been no increase in purchases of healthier food and drink and no reduction in tobacco sales. Despite the emphasis placed on children's health in the ongoing Northern Territory emergency response, or NTER, data showed that in the Northern Territory in 2009-2010 only 12.7 per cent of children aged under 15 had a health check that attracted a Medicare reimbursement. There has been only a very small increase in the number of convictions for child sexual abuse in the implementation of the NTER and, with some few exceptions, school attendance at NT remote schools fell in 2009 and 2010. Fewer than 60 per cent of children enrolled in 2010 were attending school and that has declined from 70 per cent at the beginning of 2009. There was little change in attendance rates at government remote and provincial schools in 2009 to 2010. Dr Bath, the Northern Territory Children's Commissioner, informed the Senate inquiry into this bill:

The safety and wellbeing of children in remote areas and town camps is severely under threat in the Northern Territory and remains so. Their circumstances are perilous, even when compared to the circumstances of Indigenous children in other Australian jurisdictions. There is a mass of data supporting that contention. They have been documented widely. There have been a few improvements.

He then went on to state the following:

Up to 70% of children in some communities are affected by ... inner ear disorder.

Anaemia is present in up to 40 per cent, with an average of around 22 per cent of remote area kids.

At what cost? There is no evidence base to suggest things are improving, yet this heavy-handed and paternalistic approach has cost Australian taxpayers almost $1 billion. Why continue such a flawed policy? As for the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure, SEAM, the Australian Greens are very concerned that the government intends to spend over $110 million over four years on a policy that cannot be shown to be effective, when that money could be spent on properly resourcing schools in the Northern Territory and other Indigenous communities and putting in place programs that will actually improve school attendance.

I want to talk now about whether Indigenous communities feel they have been heard in this debate which critically affects their very wellbeing and existence. It is clear that many Indigenous communities are deeply unhappy with the intervention. I would like to put on the record the concerns of the Yolngu Nations Assembly, from north-east Arnhem Land, who have issued the following statement—it is extensive but it is very powerful:

To the Leaders of the Australian Federal and Northern Territory Parliaments:

1. The Yolngu nations reject the Stronger Futures bill (and those associated) and call on the Senate to discard these bills in full. We have clearly informed you that we do not support the legislation.

This dreaded federal government can achieve all its aims through partnership in our communities. They have no need to grant themselves the continued and new powers contained within these Bills.

2. Until the Stronger Futures Bill (and those associated) are thrown out of the Australian federal parliament, the Yolngu Nations call on all traditional owners across the Northern Territory to refuse:

a) participation in land lease negotiations with the Australian federal government, and

b) approval for any exploration licences.

3. The traditional owners (TOs) of prescribed community lands have been placed under extreme pressure from the Australian federal government to grant them headpieces over these communities. TOs want independently facilitate negotiations that can result in advancing the interests of both the TOs and the Australian federal government.

4. The Land Councils are increasingly being pressed by the government to act outside their roles and become agencies of government. We want our Land Councils to advocate for our needs and not have their independence curtailed by government funding arrangements and political interference.

The Yolngu Nations call on the Australian federal parliament to ask the Auditor-General for a review of the relationship between the Australian federal government and the Land Councils of the Northern Territory.

5. The Yolngu Nations call on both the Australian federal and Northern Territory governments to end their interventionist policies and agendas, and returned to a mindset of partnership based on the principles of self-determination.

6. The Yolngu Nations call on the Northern Territory government to reform the structures of local government ... to better reflect Yolngu and First People's government structures which will provide a more locally based and accessible form of local government.

7. The Yolngu Nations call for an end to the Northern Territory governments Working Futures policy. For the sustainable social and economic development of our society, homelands need to be considered equal to communities that were former mission and government settlements.

8. The Yolngu Nations call for an end to the Northern Territory governments Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four of Hours of Each School Day policy. To be successful we need education with instruction in our Yolngu languages through all levels of schooling.

This statement by the Yolngu Nations Assembly has been supported by numerous civil society groups.

The statement was signed by Reverend Dr Gondarra, who told the Senate inquiry into these bills:

If we want to see Aboriginal people better in education, better in jobs and better in any other area, we need to work together to build better legislation because this particular legislation is not on.

The Australian people should be asked to reject this legislation because it is racist. It is not helping our people. That is why we come before you and you are listening to us because we represent not stakeholders, not a department, not the service providers. We come here to represent people who are struggling, people who feel pain, people who are confused—what is going on?

Madam Chair, we want you to take this message from us. It is eating us like a cancer. We are always going to be, from the fifties until today, 2012, a puppet on a string of somebody else. We are not a free people. We are supposed to be the first people, the first nation, of this country. You should be learning so much from us when we are learning something from you. This is very important for us. We should be able to educate our people to stand and work together to build.

It is abundantly clear that these bills are not supported by key Aboriginal leaders. Why will the government not listen to them?

I would also like to put on the record the appalling consultation process by which this legislation supposedly gained community support. The vast majority of submissions and evidence addressing the consultation process expressed serious concern at how the consultations were carried out and the way community comments and concerns were reflected in the consultation report. The Australian Human Rights Commission summarised this in their submission to the Senate committee inquiry into these bills, stating:

The Commission has previously brought these concerns to the attention of the government in relation to the inadequacy of the consultation process as outlined below:

    Stronger Futures Discussion Paper
      Stronger Futures Discussion Paper

    It was evident from the Senate inquiry that this lack of consultation has led to a lack of understanding among Aboriginal people about what this legislation actually contains. For example, Miss Shaw from the Intervention Rollback Action Group, speaking about her grandfather's experience, said:

    There were no consultations at his nearest community—the only one he has ever known and the one he grew up in. So here he is: an old man who is almost 80—he looks very well for his age—who has lived on the same country his whole life as a caretaker, who is a prominent elder in his community and who is the holder of stories of his country. Yet he does not know anything about the three bills being passed …

    In my grandfather's community, for example, how they went about it is that a time and a place were booked for somebody to go out there, but a few days later a phone call was received to say it had been cancelled. The people in my grandfather's community were not consulted about the Stronger Futures. So they do not know. The only consultation that he had came from land council. If people are not going to have their say and their input into the Stronger Futures policy then how are you supposed to work in partnership and have genuine consultation with people? How are you going to find out what people's needs and wants are?

    The Maningrida community were particularly critical of the consultation process. Community members commented that meetings were disorganised and rushed; materials were not given in time for people to properly understand them; no-one returned to follow up; and, in one instance, men and women were divided into separate groups for discussion, despite wanting to consult as a group. Mr Morrish, CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, told the committee inquiry:

    Just to clarify in relation to the consultation process, I want to bring a couple of points to the committee's attention. The discussion paper on Stronger Futures was actually handed to members of the community minutes—literally minutes—before the minister arrived for that consultation. I am not sure how community members, with low levels of numeracy and literacy in some cases, where English is a third or fourth language, are supposed to digest a 28-page document in a matter of minutes in order to have an informed consultation, and for the results of that consultation to be taken back and considered and used informing the Stronger Futures legislation. Certainly the Stronger Futures legislation report does not reflect in any knowing way what was actually said here. There were a number of clear statements made that certainly have not found their way into that report.

    I want to talk a little about what is actually needed. There is overwhelming evidence that, rather than draconian, top-down interventions, governments must learn to develop respectful partnerships with Indigenous people and communities. Trust and respect between government and communities is critical to tackling the issues that face those communities. Solutions need to be developed in partnership with local communities, drawing on local expertise and governance, to develop and implement more effective, local solutions.

    The Australian Greens believe that the federal government must re-examine the approach that they are taking in the Northern Territory and, of course, that they now wish to roll out elsewhere. International research and best practice point to the importance of empowerment and local governance in improving outcomes for Indigenous people. The Stronger Futures package, rather than empowering Aboriginal people, undermines their governance and devalues their culture. Until we see a change in approach, until Aboriginal people are empowered to lead their own development, efforts in the NT and elsewhere will not be effective. The Australian Greens recommend that the federal and Northern Territory governments commit to appropriately resource—which includes financial and technical assistance—and prioritise programs that facilitate the development of community governance structures. Such measures enable and empower Aboriginal communities to engage with and control decision making about their cultural, political, economic and social development goals.

    As a Queensland senator I do not want to see compulsory income management rolled out in Logan and Rockhampton, in low-income communities, which this bill will allow. This is racist, bad policy, and rolling it out in non-Indigenous communities as well just makes it bad policy that is applied to everyone.

    In conclusion, the Australian Greens oppose the intervention and we likewise oppose the Stronger Futures legislation. There is no substantive evidence to show that the intervention has had a positive effect on the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Rather, we have heard loud and clear from Aboriginal people, their representative organisations and the community sector that the top-down, punitive nature of the intervention has actually undermined and disempowered Aboriginal people and communities. That the intervention has been ineffective should come as no surprise. International research on Indigenous economic development makes it clear that community driven measures are far more successful in improving the lives of people than top-down approaches. The government should abandon Stronger Futures. These bills will not deliver the future we want for Australian communities.


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